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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

When a man loves a man

Deadly liaisons in the swinging '60s of London

Gangster No. 1

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Paul McGuigan
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 24

It's not easy. Being a man, that is. It's not easy at the best of times, but consider being a man and a gangster in London during the '60s. It's living on the edge, every single day of your life. Not only is there the daily pressure of being tough, there's also the extra pressure of having to be cool about it. This was before the birth of the Sensitive Man. We can't talk about our emotions, or whine about our "jobs." We do the work, and that is it. Oh, excuse me, allow me to introduce myself. I'm Gangster No. 1 (Paul Bettany), the mainman in this particular show.

News photo
Paul Bettany in "Gangster No. 1"

I call it a show because so much of it is about fashion and the way I look. In fact, I became a gangster because of the great clothes: Italian suit, jeweled cuff-links, custom leather shoes. I owe it all to my boss, Freddy Mays (David Thewlis). He's the one who taught me how to dress, how to spark a fag, how to sit down on his beautiful black leather settee.

Gawd, I loved Freddy. Honest. I loved his style, his whole bearing. We pulled off some of the most brilliant jobs in the London underworld. We were, in my own words, like "Moet et Chandon." We were invincible.

But Freddy betrayed me, over a girl. Karen (Saffron Burrows) her name was. I admit she was easy on the eye, but so's a lot of other women. Somehow Freddy went weak. He allowed her into his, no, our sacred apartment and they were talking of marriage. Freddy, the most powerful man in London, the one who could have conquered the entire Western hemisphere -- this man lost his head over some cheap nightclub singer. It was plain painful to see. So I did the only thing I possibly could. I crushed Freddy like a bug, and stepped into his place. I took over. Leather settee. Everything.

How did it all happen? Well, I'm convinced that what happened here will go down as one of the goriest, most memorable moments in violent cinema. The director chap, Paul McGuigan -- if you don't know his name now, then after this you won't bloody well be able to forget it -- staged this godawful blood-and-guts sequence of me having a go at a rival gang boss, so I can pin the blame on Freddy and lock him behind bars for decades and decades. I got all my gear together in a brief case (nothing fancy, just a couple of long knives and my favorite ax), broke into the boss's apartment and stripped down to my underwear. I wasn't going to mess up my Italian suit, you understand. And then I went at him.

Some critics claim this scene took too long but I disagree. You see, the director shot the whole thing from the victim's point of view. All the time, the camera's on me, getting more and more blood spilled on my undershirt as my excitement escalates, but the audience can't actually see what I'm doing to the guy. Clever, hey?

Apparently, McGuigan is a great admirer of some Japanese filmmaker called Kinji Fukasaku and wanted to pay tribute. This Fukasaku was into gangsters too, and splashed a lot of red on the screen, right up to his death.

Speaking of which, at the end of the movie I wind up as a pathetic old gang boss (Malcolm McDowell) soaked in violence and never having known love, or the like.

No regrets of course, govnah, but for the record, I just want to say that I knew love: I loved Freddy.

It's just that we didn't hit it off.

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