While at a boxing match, an aging gangster (Malcolm McDowell) learns that his former mentor and eventual rival, Freddy Mays (David Thewlis), is about to be released from prison. The gangster flashes back to when he was a young man (played by Paul Bettany) who worked as an enforcer for and eventually betrayed Freddy.
Gangster No. 1 came out at the height of America’s fascination with British gangsters but this is no Guy Ritchie heist film. Gangster No. 1 is brutal and violent, with little humor to alleviate the savagery. Even though Gangster No. 1 does a good job recreating and capturing the look and feel of the swinging London of the 1960s, it still does away with almost all of the romantic revisionism that made many British crime films so popular in the late 90s and early aughts. The gangster (who is nameless throughout the film) is not an eccentric anti-hero. He’s not a Kray brother. Unlike Freddy, who has integrity and is redeemed by his love for Karen (Saffron Burrows), the gangster is a violent sociopath who, when young, will do anything to be number one and who, when old, is disillusioned to discover just how empty life is at the top. As violent and uncompromising as it is, it may not be a film for everyone but it still an interesting twist on the typical gangster film.
Even though it is hard to imagine Bettany growing up to look like McDowell, they both contribute good and complimentary performances as the same character. David Thewlis also gives a good performance as Freddy Mays. Since Thewlis is usually typecast as a villain, it’s always interesting to see him play a hero (or as close as anyone in Gangster No. 1 can come to being a hero).