Nothing quite says “this is going to be an epic, grisly, relentless roller-coaster of a gangster movie” like an opening scene that shows a woman lying in a bathtub filled with blood while “Big in Japan” croons on in the background. That’s how we meet 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.
And, like its opening scene promises, the film certainly isn’t here to play. For the duration of its three-hour runtime, it lives up to the initial “Big in Japan” energy: An almost constant flashy soundtrack convulses between garish Eastern European techno club beats and white-hot classic rock hits; an impossibly cool look tints smooth camerawork with frosty blues; and theatrical performances grab your attention.
Gangster starts when Nikos (Tomasz Wlosok) is just a little kid, about to experience his life-altering, Henry Hill-esque “I’ve always wanted to be a gangster” moment. After watching a man exchange currency to con people, Nikos realizes that his true passion lies in hustling. The rest is history. As a teenager, he gets involved in similar, small-scale swindles, until, as an adult, he builds an empire and becomes one of the most menacing names in Europe, stealing German cars and selling them in Poland.
Skotarczak’s story is, by all accounts, a captivating one. And if we can get real for a second, it is likely the case that a gangster movie is never going to be a boring one—that’s why we’ve got so many of them, and so many good ones, at that. While it might seem as though this fact would inevitably make the directors’ job easier, in reality it makes it more difficult. The truth is, I could rattle off 30 gangster flicks right now and not even veer close to the territory of the obscure. Not to mention that some of what are regarded as the world’s best films—The Godfather, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, to name a few—fall into this category. The question, then, isn’t how one should venture to follow in the footsteps of the greats, but rather how one can cover new ground.
Sadly, amidst the film’s larger-than-life energy and stranger-than-fiction story, Kawulski doesn’t ever manage to solve that puzzle. Not a lot about Gangster’s plot is especially groundbreaking, which, in itself, isn’t inherently problematic. Nikos is a player, and goes through a number of sexual partners, ones which, in the style of a good Scorsese film, go up in flames in an explosive manner (often with threats of violence from a woman scorned). There are also no shortages of car-jacking montages or I-absolutely-saw-that-coming betrayals.
So Kawulski tries to spice Gangster up with flashy style, and spice things up he does…but this particular spice only ends up making the film feel that much more derivative. I’ll probably never get sick of the breaking-the-fourth-wall gimmick, but, as far as biopics go, it’s been done a hundred times before. And this isn’t the first—or even fiftieth—time that we’ve seen a Nikos-esque character. He loves chicks, crime and money, and instead of leaning into the nuance that the real-life Skotarczak more than likely had, Kawulski emphasizes these traits in order to capitalize on his this-is-a-freaking-gangster-movie style as much as possible. The same predictability goes for Nikos’ respective girlfriends: Material-obsessed Halina (Magdalena Lamparska), mysterious temptress Milena (Agnieszka Grochowska) and promiscuous Nikita (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz). This is particularly disappointing, as all four of these actors are uniquely charismatic and carry a nuance in their expressions. If only they were given more to do.
These aren’t the only incidents in which Gangster trips over itself. The film is framed as an interview between one of Nikos’ ex-lovers and an eager young journalist (the transcript of which will probably be titled… drum-roll… How I Fell in Love with a Gangster) But Gangster’s self-aware style is totally at odds with this storytelling method. If this is a side-character’s view of Nikos’ life, then why does each character get their moment to look knowingly into the camera?
This isn’t to say that all of these elements inherently stifle the How I Fell in Love with a Gangster’s potential. No, the roadmap to the flashy gangster flick is a tried-and-true formula, and Nikos’ life lives up to the flair. But if you’re looking to fall in love with a film that delivers nuance and surprise, you’d be best served looking elsewhere.
Director: Maciej Kawulski
Writers: Krzysztof Gureczny, Maciej Kawulski
Stars: Tomasz Wlosok, Antoni Królikowski, Agnieszka Grochowska, Magdalena Lamparska, Krystyna Janda, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Eryk Lubos, Sebastian Fabijanski
Release Date: January 12, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.