Aside from feature films originating in Canada, it's rare that Canadian movie goers get to see a film before their American counterparts. It has happened a few times over the years but in general it's it's so rare that I can't remember the last time it happened. However this is the case with the British film "Gangster No 1" which played briefly in Canadian cinemas during the summer of 2001 . Although IFC Films plans to release "Gangster No 1" to theaters in New York and Los Angeles in April thanks to TVA International's region 1 DVD release American's wanting to see this film immediately need not wait.
Young gangster (Paul Bettany) has accumulated a number of marketable criminal skills in his short life. He's stolen cars, set buildings ablaze and has probably assaulted more then his fair share of men. He is working on his own when he is discovered by Freddie Mays (David Thewalis), the head of one of the most notorious gangs at the time. The two begin to form a friendship and before long Gangster is Freddie's right hand man. All is not quiet in the business of organized crime however as tension between Freddie's gang and another local player Lennie Taylor's (Jamie Foreman) gang begins to build as buildings begin to get set on fire and people begin get beaten. Meanwhile Freddie is beginning to fall in love with a call girl by the name of Karen (Saffron Burrows) who wants to become a lounge singer. Gangster see's this as a potential weakness and uses it to his advantage resulting in numerous tortures and deaths. When Mays is sent to prison he takes over the gang. With his new found power he turns into a darker more disturbed individual who will do anything and everything to remain as he put's it "King Kong, Gangster No 1". The years pass and Gangster (now played by Malcom McDowell) remains on top until he learns of Freddie's impending release from prison.
"Gangster No 1" is a deeply disturbing and violent film that isn't for the faint of heart. The language and graphic nature of some of the scenes are likely to offend a great number of people. A testament to this is that the fact Canadian Rating board have given "Gangster No 1" the Canadian "R" rating which is the equivalent to a US NC-17. In my experience I've only come across a handful of movies that have received such a high rating with most US "R"'s carrying a 14a or 18a here in Canada. If you can look past some of the content and get into the film then you will be doing yourself a favor. It wasn't always easy watching the on-screen events transpire or hearing some of the things out of the character's mouths but in the end the discomfort was well worth it.
The cast of "Gangster No 1" is made up entirely of British actors most of which aren't recognizable names in North America. Paul Bettany plays the lead character referred to soley as Gangster. Bettany who American audiences might recognize from "A Knight's Tale" where he played Chaucer or the recent theatrical release "A Beautiful Mind" where he plays Russell Crowe's college roommate is excellent here. Even though he isn't always given the best material, his portrayal of a dark, violent man with little or no remorse is very creepy. If I were to run into this man in a back alley I'd be scared for my life. David Thewalis is an actor with 30 other screen credits to his name in both film and television and who seemed oddly familiar to me but I couldn't pick out from where. His Freddie Mays comes off as the exact opposite of Gangster as he shows heart and compassion and at a deeper level is not simply just a ruthless vigilante type. Also providing a noteworthy appearance is "Deep Blue Sea's" Saffron Burrows who plays the sultry, seductive call girl Karen and who does her own singing. Lastly we have Malcom McDowell appearing as "Old Gangster" who has appeared in countless films. It's a bit strange that he is in the film playing the older version of Paul Bettany's character as the rest of the actors and actresses play their characters during both decades. It wouldn't surprise me if he was brought to improve marketability in the North American market and not for the role.
In his feature length directorial debut director Paul McGuigan manages to craft a darkly comedic and violent look at the rise of a gangster from the low level ranks to the top of the heap. His unique visual approach takes the viewer right into the heat of the action so close in fact that when someone is being attacked that it feels like you are the one being beaten. He is not scared to show the aftermath of an assault as there is often blood splattered everywhere. While "Gangster No 1" uses most of the traditional elements of a British gangster movie the thing that set's it apart from the pack is it's dark almost satirical comedic style that is reminiscent of "American Psycho". Working from a screenplay by first timer Johnny Ferguson, McGuigan creates a gangster film that while remaining true to the ideals of the genre is often sharp, witty, violent and funny all at the same time.
Whether or not you like "Gangster No 1" may come down to if you can stomach the violence and language. Fans of the British gangster movies "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" will probably find this film to their liking. If blood or excessive violence offends you'd probably do best to stay clear of "Gangster No 1". Still I'll give this film a recommendation based on the fact it does more right then it does wrong and managed to hold my attention for it's entire duration which doesn't happen all that often with films in this genre.
Movie Rating : 8/10
VIDEO: TVA International who did a bang up job on the transfer for their Canadian exclusive special edition of "Ginger Snaps" have once again provided a nice transfer for this Canadian exclusive release. "Gangster No 1" is presented at 1.85:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic displays. The film itself has a rough and unpolished look which was the directors stylistic choice but TVA does it best to make sure the only flaws present are the intended ones. As the film is set primarily in 1960's London the use of color is strong and vibrant in the interior scenes and severely muted during the exteriors. The print used is free of most minor blemishes as I didn't see any scratches, scuffs or anything of that ilk. However the film does have an unusually high amount of grain that pop's up throughout the feature enough that it doesn't appear to be intentional. Edge enhancement and pixelation are thankfully absent from the transfer. I was also sure with the British setting and the number of brick buildings that some shimmer would occur but that isn't the case here. Aside from the grain, sharpness and detail are generally good and while some shots look out of focus it's intended. In general this is quite a nice transfer that could have been that much better had it not been for overabundance of grain present.
Video Rating : 8/10
SOUND TVA International is a Canadian studio and as such they provide audio options in both of Canada's official languages. On "Gangster No 1" they offer 2 English mixes (DD 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo) and one french mix (DD 2.0 Stereo). As this is a big gangster movie one could go expect a rock em sock em audio assault but that isn't the case here. Director Paul McGuigan has opted to go for a more subdued mix allowing the characters words to come to the forefront of the mix and not the sound effects. The film remains front centered with the dialog coming from the center channel sounding quite clear and natural. Music plays the second most important role aurally filling the room on a couple of occasions. Use of the surround speakers is limited to the occasional gun shot, or car drive by. The LFE channel is not totally inactive but remains silent for the majority of the running time. Audio quality is generally quite good and the British accents are not that difficult to understand. All in all this is naturalistic mix that's technically fine but does not go out of it's way to creatively make use the 5.1 channels.
Audio Rating : 8/10
TVA International is still riding high in Canada on the success of their late October 2001 release of "Ginger Snaps". While they have released a number of discs since then most of them have been simple barebones releases or reissues of American discs in their own case. This is all fine and dandy but they haven't really had another chance to show off their ability to make top notch discs that can stand on their own in the marketplace. They get that chance here with their Canadian exclusive "Gangster No 1" a film that has extensive two disc sets in Region 2. Although this Canadian edition is missing a couple of the trailers and some interviews from the UK release and is only one disc the majority of the special features do appear here.
The biggest feature in terms of length on any disc is more often the not the audio commentary track. It has become a standard feature on just about every major studio release and even on a lot of independent films. Some discs even take things further by including multiple tracks. Sitting down for this track is director Paul McGuigan who speaks at length regarding his feature film directorial debut. Paul provides a nice mix of information dealing with everything from the technical side of production (including his visual choices) to what it was liking working with the actors. He does pause from time to time to reflect upon certain scenes in the film, but the majority of the length of the film is narrated. Luckily the track doesn't slip into what I like to call self congratulatory mode which happens all too often on these tracks. It should also be noted that McGuigan speaks with a heavy British accent but I didn't have a problem understanding him which is unusual because accents have been known to put me into a premature slumber. Overall this is a good listen even with the numerous pauses.
Up next we have a making of featurette that takes a short behind the scenes look at "Gangster No 1". Being that the production originated in the UK this is not your standard glossed over Hollywood making of. During the roughly 5 minute long featurette we are treated to some basic interviews with principals Paul Bettany, David Thewalis, and Malcom McDowell as well as director Paul Mcguigan. Luckily the short running length is used well and is not padded with clips from the film.
In the deleted scenes department viewers are given the option of watching two scenes cut from the film. Both are short scenes that really add nothing important to the story. In the case of the first scene "Naughty Boy" which features audio commentary from director Paul Mcguigan it was deleted due to it's extreme graphic nature. Interestingly enough their is no such explanation offered for the second scene "After all these years".
Rounding out the disc we have a trailer gallery which includes trailers for both recent and upcoming DVD releases as well as upcoming theatrical releases. Included are the trailers for Brotherhood of the Wolf, Suspicious Rivers (both coming soon to theaters), Ginger Snaps (recently released to DVD) and lastly upcoming DVD releases Century Hotel and Mulholland Drive which was one of my favorite films of 2001. It should be pointed out that the Mulholland Drive trailer is the shorter North American version and not the vastly superior European trailer. Oh well. To have the Mulholland Drive trailer on a DVD in any form before that title's release is a real treat for this reviewer. All trailers are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and either 4:3 Full frame or letterboxed at 1.85:1
Also included is the theatrical trailer and standard text cast and crew biographies.
Extras Rating : 7.5/10
Final Thoughts: Those of you interested in this title will no doubt have known about the content of the film before you decided to read this review and as such my comments about the violence and language should not have come as a surprise. The film's questionable content aside, TVA International's region 1 Canadian exclusive DVD offers above average video, audio and a healthy amount of special features. Fans of the genre will be more then happy with this disc. If your squeamish when you see blood or extreme violence, then this certainly is not the film for you. However it struck a cord with me and I'm giving it a conditional recommendation
Written by Mark McLeod, 1/28/02