Yet another genre exercise, Gangster No. 1 is as generic as its title. A compendium of crime clichs, the film examines the relationship between Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), the 'Butcher of Mayfair,' and an angry thug known only as Gangster (played by Malcolm McDowell and, as a youth, by Paul Bettany).

Ruminating over his career while his gang enjoys dinner at a boxing match, Gangster traces his start back to 1968, when he was singled out by one of Freddie's men. The young Gangster is seduced by Freddie's style: silk suits, Italian shoes, an apartment with a sunken living room. He is eager to prove himself as a loan shark, administering ferocious beatings to hapless deadbeats.

Rival mobster Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman), a short, balding man with black spectacles and an assortment of bizarre facial tics, has his men burn down Freddie's club. Gangster mauls one of Lennie's men. Freddie brokers a fragile truce, then brings Gangster to a nightclub to celebrate. As Gangster seethes with jealousy, Freddie falls for Karen (Saffron Burrows), a dancer and aspiring singer. It isn't long before she's moved in with Freddie and announced their engagement.

Petty thief Eddie Marson (Eddie Miller) tells Gangster that Lennie is planning an attack on Freddie. Instead of warning his boss, Gangster watches from his car as Lennie's men shoot Freddie repeatedly and slit Karen's throat. Gangster uses the attack as an excuse to torture and kill Lennie, then to take over Freddie's gang. Freddie, who survived the attack, is sent to prison for Lennie's murder.

For the next three decades, Gangster's mob runs amok, expanding from loan sharking and casinos to horses and drugs. But then Freddie is released. Thrown into a panic, Gangster forces a meeting in Freddie's old apartment. Years of bitterness and resentment come to a head as Freddie realizes for the first time the extent of Gangster's treachery.

Gangster No. 1 boasts a sleek production design and crisp, evocative cinematography. The period details, from gaudy miniskirts to cheesy pop songs, are impeccable. Thewlis is restrained and convincing as the polished, sophisticated Freddie Mays, while McDowell isn't afraid to emphasize the worst aspects of his character's personality. As the younger version of Gangster, Bettany uses his vacant face to chilling effect, much as McDowell did in A Clockwork Orange.

So why isn't the film more fun? The script ups the levels of sadism and gore, but ultimately brings nothing new to what is by now a tired genre. All the Oedipal and homoerotic references seem like window dressing. Instead of offering the scope and insight of a film like GoodFellas, Gangster No. 1 feels like an unrewarding case study of a repellent figure.

--Daniel Eagan