I don't think it's a gangster film, although it looks like one. It even came out among the flood of British gangster movies in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Instead it's something more delicate and, if you're looking for gangster action, disappointing.
I liked it, but the second half isn't quite what I'd been expecting.
It has Michael Caine going around with thugs who'll overturn cars and break people's arms. He's not quite a gangster, but it's close. In fact he's a small-time boxing promoter in London. He's spent his life arranging illegal fights and getting people put in hospital. Now though, elderly and with arthritis, he's finally seen a chance at the big time and it's the proudest day of his life. Caine's put together a title fight with his son (Michael Marsden) against a big-name American boxer. He thinks they're going to be rich. He's walking on air He's moved into a mansion, he's ordering stretch limousines and absolutely nothing is going to stop it from happening.
The result is a film of two halves: "before" and "after". The former has Caine thinking he's king of the world, running roughshod over everyone and everything to get what he wants. That's a lot of fun, actually. Sometimes it's even funny. Look out for the bit where the police come for him and Caine gets so passionate that the cops not only take pity on him, but start looking forward to the evening themselves.
However there's also "after". You didn't need me to tell you that. If you're seeing this as a gangster film, you'll be expecting bullets, torture and a body count through the roof. Admittedly that's always the most likely prospect and Caine's certainly mad enough. In one scene he's about to do something that shocks even his sidekicks, who've in the past cheerfully beaten people into vegetables.
As I said, though, this isn't a gangster film. It's got no gangs. I suppose Caine could be called the leader of a very small gang (two henchmen), but they wouldn't even be criminals if they didn't occasionally beat people up. They have a job. They arrange boxing matches. Thus the second half feels like shadow-boxing, if you'll forgive the metaphor, as Caine tries to tear like a mad dog through everyone he can find... but before long he's going to run out of people except for those he's closest to. He thinks "they're" out to stop him. He's looking for a war, but he can't find one. A gangster movie would be about revenge, carnage and killing. This movie is about an old man who might be called delusional and whose out-of-control behaviour has brought everything upon his own head.
Some gangster films glorify violence. Others horrify you with it and make their protagonists repellent and scary. This film eventually makes Caine's antics look pathetic. You can see how this might disappoint neanderthal cinema-goers who enjoy bloodbaths.
That's half the movie, but just as important is the acting. Caine is the main man, obviously. With no disrespect to the rest of the cast, he carries the film. It's a joy to be with him. He's got so much movie history on his shoulders that it's cool just to see him here in the first place, over and above the fact that he's an excellent actor. He doesn't have the savagery of a Ray Winstone, for instance, but that's not what the film's asking for. He's not a mad dog. It's a more nuanced role that that. He's at his most powerful when his thoughts are on his future, his family and everything he loves. His speech to that policeman is brilliant, for instance.
Caine's not the only game in town, though. Martin Landau is an England-hating American boxing promoter, while Andy Serkis of all people is one of Caine's entertaining thugs. Yes, him. What's cool about this is that it's the year 2000. No one had heard of Serkis yet, but one year later we'd watch Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and before long Serkis would have become the only one of his kind in the movie industry. King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes... this is a man who's a realistic Oscar prospect despite performing through the medium of computer pixels.
He's good here, by the way. He has a strong rapport with his fellow thug (Frank Harper) and together the two of them are among the most empathic characters in the movie, despite the things they do.
There's also a bit of a New Who preunion. There's Frances Barber (Madame Kovarian in the 2011 season) and the combination of Danny Webb and Claire Rushbrook (both from The Satan Pit, as Mr Jefferson and Ida Scott respectively).
Would I recommend this film? Not particularly, but I wouldn't warn you off it either. It's another British film that's clearly trying to ride the gangster wave of the time even if I don't think it's a gangster film itself. The first half is excellent, everything you'd be anticipating. Michael Caine is the man. Its only problem is that it's stronger and more audience-pleasing than the second half, which wrong-footed me a little. I can see what the second half's doing, but I think it could have flagged itself up more clearly to its audience and not encouraged so many people to go away thinking it had missed its mark. I suspect it'll work much better on a rewatch, though. You're watching for Caine, basically, and with hindsight it's an even bigger showcase for him as an actor than it looks.