Ten years on, American independent moviemakers seem to have come to terms with the anxiety of Quentin Tarantino’s influence—the guns-&-blather template no longer gluts Sundance, and third-generation straight-to-tapers like 4 Dogs Playing Poker and Gunblast Vodka occupy only nominal Blockbuster shelf space. Not so with the British, whose industry’s ironic-gangster saliva glands are still in overdrive, and whose reawakened taste for legendary Swinging London hoodlums scans oddly like cultural pride. Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 is in every way a typical tissue sample, as happily glib and vicious as its characters. Blanketed by a mannered you-fuckin’-cunt narration, McGuigan’s movie travels between 1968—when suave kingpin Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) takes on the unnamed punk protagonist (Paul Bettany) as a henchman—and today, when the aged rascal (Malcolm McDowell) awaits the prison release of his former boss, whom he had framed for murder.
Aspiring to Guy Ritchie-ness, McGuigan’s film is significantly less inventive and frenetic, but just as unsubtle, limiting the psychopathology of Bettany’s thug to a taste for tool-kit torture. Petty mob politics aside, there’s not much going on between bloodbaths (usually shot through a halibut’s eye) and rhapsodies about period mobster fashion. (Never have cufflinks been such a cause for hyperbole.) The actors all function as best they can as glowering clichés, though the narrative’s temporal jump presents difficulties: The hero’s 30-year transition is sketchy (Terence Stamp would’ve been more convincing, and taller, as the older Bettany), while the other actors play their elder selves with powder in their hair. Gangster No. 1 was adapted from a play, and little about it would be lost on the balcony’s back row.
Subtlety, of course, is a relative quantity—Joel Schumacher’s Bad Company makes nearly any summer competition echo like Austen. Predictably soulless techno-tripe, this Bruckheimer-in-a-can thriller is leavened only by the ludicrous notion of Chris Rock playing separated twins: the scam-artist Jersey boy and the ultra-educated, international spy. The latter—CIA agent Anthony Hopkins’s partner—is offed during a deal with the Russian mob to secure yet another wandering nuclear bomb, and so he must be replaced with the ne’er-do-well twin nobody knew he had. Four writers claim some form of blame for this moldy Dumas chestnut (which probably translates to a pre-credit-arbitration total of eight or more), but the story is just the pretense for the usual nap-inducing ritual of badly cut gunfights and digital surveillance baloney. Hopkins, to his credit, seems disgusted with himself.
As if in pragmatic response to the current soft-pedaling revenge fantasy Enough, Takashi Ishii’s Freeze Me gets its day in court at Cinema Village after causing concussions at Anthology’s recent Asian series. A suffocating rape-payback horror show that hinges on the subgenre’s most enabling victim (the perhaps inappropriately voluptuous Inoue Harumi) and an ebullient affection for industrial-model meat freezers, Ishii’s rough-hewn film may be the nastiest entry in its dubious but resonant subgenre since I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a black pearl for anyone who likes a little existential psychosis with their semi-softcore exploitation.