MOVIE REVIEW – This three-hour film tells the story of a real-life Polish gangster legend who went from petty criminal to powerful mafia boss under socialism. Although the action and shoot-outs are not typical of this film, and this Polish film is not up there with Martin Scorsese’s best, this Eastern European film is interesting in many ways, including for us.
The first major Netflix film of 2022 starts with an impressive opening scene, which gives the viewer the right to expect an “epic, horrific, relentless, rollercoaster-like gangster movie”. A woman lies in a bathtub full of blood while “Big in Japan” plays in the background. And so we come to How I Fell in Love with a Gangster, director Maciej Kawulski’s sprawling chronicle of the rise and fall of real-life Polish gangster Nikodem “Nikos” Skotarczak.
“You wake up, and you’re a gangster!” (György Szomjas: Gangster Film)
The otherwise somewhat misleadingly titled Polish gangster epic (there’s not much romance in the film, except that an ex-girlfriend of the protagonist narrates the story) begins when Nikos (Tomasz Wlosok) is just a toddler and is living through his life-changing Henry Hill moment from The Big Men, “I always wanted to be a gangster”. As a teenager, he gets involved in similar, smaller scams until, as an adult, he builds an empire and becomes one of the most menacing names in Europe: stealing and selling German cars in Poland. After watching a man change the currency to scam people, Nikos realises his true passion is conning people. The rest is history.
The real Skotarczak’s story is clearly captivating. However, the fundamental dilemma for a gangster film director is how to kick the ball around the countless classics – especially when we are talking about Eastern Europe, not Hollywood. Of course, a gangster film is never dull – that’s why there are so many of them and so many good ones. While this may seem like it would inevitably make the directors’ job more accessible, it actually makes it harder. The truth is that, with a bit of reflection, I could list nearly 30 gangster films that most people know or at least have heard of. Not to mention that some of the world’s best movies – The Godfather, Godfellas, Pulp Fiction, Once Upon a Time in America, to name but a few – fall into this category. So the question is not how to follow in the footsteps of the greats but how to discover new paths.
Hollywood twists and turns and character portrayals
The plot of How I Fell in Love with a Gangster is not particularly groundbreaking in many ways – of course, that’s not a problem in itself. Unfortunately, despite the film’s strange, Eastern European story and atmosphere, and its stranger-than-fiction story, Kawulski has not succeeded in solving this mystery. Nikos (Tomasz Włosok) is a really charming, good-looking and highly charismatic young gangster who is highly inventive in his genre and effortlessly has a way with women. Of course, we are talking about pluralism here, and women (especially wives) do not easily tolerate Nikos’ misdemeanours. Hence, the marital situation familiar from the Godfellas is not absent from this film. Of course, there is no shortage of sex scenes in the movie.
Although the aforementioned typical Eastern European atmosphere (part of the film is set in Budapest and the song “The Girl with the Pearl Hair” is heard during a scene in Hungary) really adds to the film, but whether it is fiction or biopic, the story is not much different from what we have seen a hundred times before.
Nikos loves chicks, crime and money, and rather than Kawulski portraying the more nuanced traits of the original Skotarczak in his fiction, he emphasises these familiar traits to draw in fans of these films as much as possible with his classic gangster movie schematics.
The same predictability also applies to Nikos’ current girlfriends: the money-obsessed, cheating wife Halina (Magdalena Lamparska), the mysterious seductress Milena (Agnieszka Grochowska) and the sex-addicted, drug-addicted Nikita (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz). This is particularly disappointing because all four actors are uniquely charismatic and carry nuances in their expressions. I wish they had been given more to do by the director.
A three-hour gangster story in a row – is it worth it?
Despite the milieu, the era and the atmosphere, this is not the Eastern European gangster film that will one day be mentioned alongside the genre films of Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone or other famous Hollywood directors. The three-hour running time is a bit long, and this film really has to be watched in one sitting if you don’t want to get lost in it because it is quite convoluted – which is actually a positive thing here. Although the ‘love’ in the title is not typical of the film, anyone who is really curious about how the most famous Polish gangster built his empire in the socialist era will not be disappointed by this long but substantial gangster epic.