American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
If Alex DeLarge of "A Clockwork Orange" had become a London gangster, he might have turned out like the hero of "Gangster No. 1." The movie encourages that connection by casting Malcolm McDowell, the original Alex, as the character grown old. Paul Bettany, who plays Young Gangster, is often photographed with his eyes glaring up from beneath lowered brows, which was the signature look Stanley Kubrick gave Alex. Another connection: The movie contains a beating of startling brutality, scored by a pop song played at top volume. The movie is inspired, as all modern London gangster movies are inspired, by the notorious Kray brothers. It isn't based on their lives or deeds, but on the aura of evil they so successfully projected; they often got their way without violence, because they seemed so capable of it. In "Gangster No. 1," the crime family is led by Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), who in 1968 is a young, sleek, expensively groomed hood who runs a nightclub and surrounds himself with hard men; he's known as the Butcher of Mayfair. One day he summons Young Gangster, tosses him a roll of bills, hires him and seals his own fate.
The movie, directed by Paul McGuigan, begins in 1999, with Young Gangster grown middle-aged and cold-eyed. McDowell plays the character as a man who has lost all joy, retaining only venom.
We see him with cronies at a private boxing club; they're laughing uglies, drinking champagne, smoking cigars, recalling the violent days of their youth (significantly, their memories are starting to be unreliable). Then he learns that Freddie is getting out of prison, his eyes narrow, and we go into the flashback.
The 1968 events have been called Shakespearean, which is fair enough, since just about everything is Shakespearean. They also have a touch of Freud. Young Gangster admires Freddie enormously, wants to be like him, and is probably half in love with him. When Freddie falls in love with the nightclub singer Karen (Saffron Burrows), Young Gangster is consumed with jealousy. In one of the movie's strongest scenes, he confronts Karen, who not too subtly offers to help him find a girl, and then spits in his face.