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MGM Studios DVD presents
Karen: You're not bad looking.
DVD ReviewAt the conclusion of the 1949 classic White Heat, James Cagney’s maniacal gangster Cody Jarrett stands atop a burning oil refinery and screams "Top of the world, ma!" before succombing to his fiery death. During one revealing moment of Gangster No. 1, Malcolm McDowell's crazy old gangster screams "I'm number one!" from a skyscraper while only wearing his underwear. Both men have supposedly reached the pinnacle of their profession, but nothing exists for them but pain and sorrow. The lead gangster in this picture has severed every moral fiber in his body to reach the top, but he finds it devoid of happiness.
Relatively unknown director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House) has crafted an intense portrait of a despicable gangster that overwhelms most previous incarnations of this character type. The majority of this tragic tale occurs in the 1960s as we follow the young Gangster (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) and his rise to power. His initial appearance reveals a green boy with few clues about style or brutality. However, he studies the movements of the well-dressed boss Freddie Mays (David Thewlis, Dragonheart) and crafts his own personality. During one especially uncomfortable moment, Gangster sits in the car and conducts an eerie, almost sexual inspection of every inch of Mays' form. This attraction to his confident superior is not really about sex, however, but instead reflects his strong desire to be that powerful man in every way.
Before dismissing this tale as just another "rise and fall of the gangster" story, I should tell you that strong variations are present here. We learn nothing about Gangster's past and don't see the usual happy moments of a young boy working for the fat, old bosses. Following a quick introduction, the flashback scenes immediately move into the inner workings of a small group of low-level British hoods. This film also closely explores the dark interior of a fairly normal guy whose demons overcome his soul. The killings are especially brutal, but they don't feel gratuitous because the cartoon elements have been removed. When Gangster enters the apartment of a rival leader, he brings an entire set of rudimentary tools that reflect his barbaric nature. Although later repulsed by his actions, he takes disturbing pleasure in committing atrocious violence, which separates him from the more likable villains of many genre entries.
The story in the 1960s is told almost entirely in flashback from the point of view of the old, bitter Gangster. McDowell's voice appears intermittently and injects crude thoughts about the characters while rarely explaining his young actions. When Freddie Mays meets the stunning Karen (Saffron Burrows, Enigma), we see the hateful look on Gangster's face while his own words expand the idea. She represents another element gained by his powerful associate that he desires. The flashback structure also opens up the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Should we believe that this image of Gangster is entirely accurate? Regardless, his lack of remorse about past cruelties towards Mays and others showcases a person who has not progressed in his adulthood in any way.
Bolstered by an intense, biting debut script from Johnny Ferguson, Gangster No. 1 remains compelling, while inspiring hatred towards its lead character. This is not an easy task. Many viewers will probably abhor this picture due to the graphic violence and unlikable protagonist. I would agree with them on both points, but still found plenty of interest within the story. McGuigan maintains a kinetic style of split screens and odd colors that helps to strike an exciting tone, even in slower moments. When Thewlis and McDowell confront each other in the end as old shells of their former selves, the tension splits the air and helps to create an intriguing sequence.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Gangster No.1 is available in both widescreen and pan & scan version on this disc. The full-frame option comes with the usual problems inherent with a cropped picture. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer does a nice job in creating the 1960s atmosphere. There are some noticeable defects on the print, but they do seem to match the tone of the period. Some grain also appears during the darker moments, but it remains light and does not distract too considerably. The bright, fiery colors spring from the transfer several times and help to enhance McGuigan's visual invention.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Enjoyable rock-and-roll tunes jump effectively from this 5.1-channel Dolby Surround transfer. The story often veers into chaotic territory, and this powerful track keeps everything energetic. The mournful score also enhances the dark tone, and it has a nice range of depth. I would have liked to hear even more complexity from the rear speakers, but these are minor complaints. For the most part, everything is easily understandable and presented forecefully.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Paul McGuigan
Extras Review: Gangster No. 1 contains a few decent extra features that shed additional light onto the production. The major inclusion is a commentary track from director Paul McGuigan, who spends considerable time discussing the creation of the gangster character. His Scottish accent does make a few lines difficult to comprehend, but it is not an issue. The director varies his statements nicely and covers both the technical and story elements. The best segments focus on McGuigan's desire to make this picture differ from the typical gangster film. His tone may be a bit dry at times, but the commentary remains interesting throughout most of the picture.
The remaining supplements include a brief featurette, deleted scene, and several preview trailers. While the short documentary runs only about five minutes, it does provide more information than the typical promotional junk. It mixes interview clips with McGuigan, McDowell, and Bettany with scenes from the film to give us a brief overview. The deleted scene is an alternate version of McDowell preparing for the arrival of the older Freddie Mays. It runs for about two-and-a-half minutes.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsPrior to his first killing, Paul Bettany's young Gangster contorts his face into an unnatural position and lets out the silent scream of a demonic figure. From this point forward, the character degenerates into a person obsessed with power and control. The evil segments of his persona overtake any semblance of humanity and create a callous monster. Gangster No. 1 presents a fascinating portrait of an extremely disturbed individual who gains wealth and power, but loses his soul in the process.
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