BY PETER W. KAPLAN
Just as "Chariots of Fire" had a kind of revved-up romantic jingoism to it, "The Long Good Friday" -- a brilliant evidence that the British film industry has broken from its long nascence and resumed a world- leader position in the movie business -- has a perverse and horrific exhilaration to its love of country. This is a great gangster movie that's happy that there are some businesses in England that continue to work.
Mob movies from "Public Enemy" to "The Godfather" show gangsters as agents within a society that condemns them as they follow an aberrant set of the rules they know work in more legitimate aspects of the society. The hero of "The Long Good Friday," a bullet-headed mob leader ready, with the work and money of 20 years of hard racketeering, is ready to go legitimate. He wants to plug his mob's tentacles into the holes of the British economy that he knows can bring him both important profits and the kind of respectability that his morals lead him to desire. As he's on the verge of closing the biggest deal he's ever made, his world begins to collapse as another group -- unnamed and shrouded by its own self-protection -- mounts an assault on his "corporation," knocks off his best friend and closest associates, and plants bombs in his showplace casino and pub investments.
His panic, disillusionment and somehow valiant climb to rehabilitation deliver a depth and momentum to "The Long Good Friday" that give you all the information you need both on the business in which he works and the topography of his character and British up-scale low life.
As opposed to the light glow of "Chariots of Fire," "The Long Good Friday" shows the gun-black dark side of modern English society where the best businesses are the most unregulated ones. It also shows the inherent violence and insistent patriotism of the most ingenious British businessmen -- and there has to be some parallel here to the pirate entrepreneurs of whom we read so much -- who are the fief-owners of a nation determined to state it's not going under. Our gangster friend in "The Long Good Friday" creates a stirring picture for his associates of a revitalized London as the city of the future, without a word on either gang wars or heroin. The yacht on which he and his boys entertain is a shiny symbol of the new technology and wealth he thinks he can bring to a better England as he staves off the affronts and forecasts of disaster that plague the English economy these days.
Bob Hoskins, with his deep voice and stubby Mel Brooks physicality, indicates the strength and the poison anger of what finally is a magnificently ambiguous protagonist. Helen Mirren, formerly of "Excalibur" is as good: her compassion and intelligence as the mobster's upper-class, cool-headed lover shed light and air through the heavy night of the movie. England, as England, serves itself well, and so does the sound of Cockney tones one can hardly cut one's way through. There is, in the world of gangsters, plenty of blood; it's here as well. You couldn't ask it not to be: England has given us a good grandgodchild to "Little Caeser" and "Public Enemy" and "The Godfather." The last shot of Hoskins is one of the best long single camera holds on a great face since Rouben Mamoulian put his camera on Garbo in "Queen Christina" and told her to stare over the waves. "The Long Good Friday" is what you go to the movies for on a Saturday.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY -- At the Dupont Circle, K-B Congressional, K-B MacArthur and Springfield Mall.