Writer and director: Savvas D Michael
When the voice of Castor (Alex Mills) begins to narrate his life story of affiliation to London’s underworld, we feel that a British equivalent to Goodfellas is in prospect. However, writer and director Savvas D Michael’s Original Gangster shows little of the underlying affection for its characters that marks Martin Scorcese’s classic. This is a savage, pitiless black comedy in which human warmth surfaces only fleetingly, like an unwelcome guest. The film is awash with explicit violence, corpses and rampant misogyny.
The narrative arc has a Dickensian flavour. Like Messrs Copperfield, Nickleby and Twist before him, Castor is orphaned as a boy. He is left outside the system, foraging in bins for food to survive, sleeping rough and mingling with the dregs of society. His life had been spared by Milo (Ian Reddington), one of his parents’ assassins and, years later, the uneducated young man turns to a reluctant Milo, a hit man and serial abuser of his wife Maria (Isabele De Rosa), as his hero and mentor. His step up to a world of drug dealing and evil organised crime has begun.
Michael treats gangster culture less as operating in a universe parallel to “normal” life than as the outcome from a successful alien conquest. Much of the action takes place on calm London streets of Edwardian villas and lush green spaces, captured by Andreas Neo’s vivid cinematography, but the expected middle class residents are nowhere to be seen. An eclectic music soundtrack adds layers of irony to the settings and the story and rare glimpses of goodness stand out, as when a solitary smile breaks Castor’s deadpan expressions.
The film also marks a welcome appearance by Steve Guttenberg, giving a delicious cameo performance as the story’s Mr Big, Jean-Baptiste Philippe (“he’s got class and he’s not French”). Looking more like Ozzy Osbourne than Al Pacino, he brushes aside his flowing blond locks to reveal a menacing grin.
Guttenberg, graduate of the Police Academy franchise and star of other American hit comedies of the 1980s, plays it solidly for laughs, but otherwise, Michael’s comedy is more subtle and never overstated. In a style reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, the writer/director does not flinch from taking diversions for the sake of oddball characters, most memorably with a barman, shot mainly in close up, telling the anecdote of “Geraldine’s big toe”. This has nothing to do with the film’s plot, but it is spellbinding.
As in all gangster films, questions surround the characters’ warped loyalties and morality codes. We, the audience, can ask ourselves whether we should really be rooting for Castor, a resilient underdog who frequently proves himself to be a heartless assassin. In posing the questions with carefully measured doses of humour, Michael has crafted a bold and confident film which deserves to be viewed as a true original.
Available on DVD & Digital Download from 5th April