Not so long ago, the cosy world of British cinema meant loving shots of rich folks enjoying themselves with witty chat and tennis providing comforting afternoon distractions. Then along came "Trainspotting", which became a massive global hit, punky directors emerged from every corner of Britain, declaring that bad behaviour, thugs and guns would shove costumes off the screen for good.
Certainly British cinema - which badly needed freshening up - was freshened up and, predictably, it has galloped off far too far in the extreme opposite direction. In the wake of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels", gangster thrillers are as anaemic and bland as the most inert, talky costume dramas and have become the new cliché. A supposedly comic version of the genre, and one of the worst home-grown films ever, was Dave Stewart's "Honest", released and pulled within days.
Fortunately, we now have a gangster picture to equal the excellence of "Lock, Stock". Almost self-consciously determined not to be a heartwarming hark back to late 60s London (there is far too much swearing and aggressive chat), "Gangster No 1" nonetheless dazzles with its fully-written characters, its determined stylishness (which always relates to characters and story) and Johnny Dankworth's best soundtrack in years. All about a vicious hard-nut (played in the past by Paul Bettany, and in the present by Malcolm McDowell) who desired the empire of his boss (David Thewlis) for himself, the film offers a platform to three electric actors, with Bettany putting on the best show of all. Not for those who regard England as a nice cup of tea.