Screenplay : Louis Mellis and David Scinto
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Ray Winstone (Gal), Ben Kingsley (Don Logan), Ian McShane (Teddy Bass), Amanda Redman (Deedee), Cavan Kendall (Aitch), Julianne White (Jackie), Álvaro Monje (Enrique), James Fox (Harry)
Sexy Beast is an oddly intriguing British import that straddles the line between the traditional crime thriller and the black comedy. It is like Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) filtered through the postmodern slapdash of Quentin Tarantino and punctuated with the kind of bizarre surrealism that would make Luis Buñuel or David Lynch smile. Although directed by first-timer Jonathan Glazer and written by two first-time scribes, Louis Mellis and David Scinto, it has a brassy confidence that is enthralling. Even when it doesn't work, you're still aware of seeing something bold and unique.
The story concerns Gal (Ray Winstone), a professional criminal from London who is living in comfortable retirement in the arid hills of the Costa de Sol in Spain with his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman). He spends most of his days baking by the pool, and his soft brown body is that of a man who has been eating a lot of good food, drinking a lot of good wine, and feels little pressure in life.
That all changes with the arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a borderline-psychotic Cockney crime boss and former associate of Gal's who flies to Spain to ask him to take part in "one last job." Unlike so many crime movies that hinge on the retired protagonist doing "one last job," there is no real emotional tear for Gal: He simply doesn't want to do it. Period. He has no interest in pulling another heist. He is far away from his crime past in London and he wants to keep it that way.
But, Don Logan will have none of that--he's not the kind of man who takes "no" for an answer. When Gal first hears that Logan is coming, Deedee asks him what he's going to say, and Gal replies in a frightened voice, "You can't say no to Don Logan," as if it is some kind of physical impossibility. And, once Logan arrives, we see that Gal is absolutely right. This is one of the few times in which a laborious build-up for a single off-screen character really pays off once that character appears on-screen.
Ben Kingsley's performance as Logan is fierce, raw, and absolutely brilliant. Generally known for playing gentle and peaceful characters--his leading role in Gandhi (1982) and as Oskar Schindler's Jewish accountant in Schindler's List (1993) being the two primary examples--Kingsley reaches deep inside himself and pulls out so much anger and vitriol that at times it looks like he is ready to explode. Kingsley is not a big man--he's short and wiry--so the movie doesn't pose him as being physically intimidating in the traditional way. Rather, the danger in his eyes, which are unnervingly close to that throbbing vein in his temple, and what comes out of his mouth--a string of profanities and insults that taper off into sly compliments and then suddenly explode again into a fury. His talks like a machine gun, and when he slows down, it's only because he needs a few seconds to reload. Gal and the others are afraid of Don Logan because he's unpredictable and he's unrelenting. We see Logan enact very little physical violence on-screen, but, like Gal and the others, it's scary to think of what he might do because there's nothing he wouldn't do.
Narratively, Sexy Beast is split into two halves, the first dealing with Don Logan's arrival in Spain and the second dealing with Gal after he finally takes the heist and goes back to London. The heist itself is a brilliant piece of cinematic absurdity: The criminals have complete access to a steam bath next to a heavily guarded bank, and they dive into the pool with scuba gear and drill through the wall into the vault. Drilling through walls to get into banks and jewelry stores is the oldest technique in the book, yet Sexy Beast gives it a funny and visually inventive spin by having it done underwater.
Director Jonathan Glazer keeps racheting up the tension as the movie moves along its quick course. The opening moments are purposefully slow and deliberate to establish Gal's peaceful existence that will be so violently interrupted by the return of his past. Yet, even then, the movie cannot maintain total peace, as within the first few minutes an enormous boulder crashes down the hill behind Gal, nearly misses his head, and lands in his swimming pool. It's a shocking comic moment--hilarious, really--and although it seems utterly random, it serves a number of purposes, most importantly establishing the idea that anything can happen in this movie. It also establishes that Gal is something of a charmed character, which will come into play later in the story.
Sexy Beast doesn't always work. Sometimes it feels a little too fond of its own cheeky absurdity, yet its confidence is exciting. It doesn't shy away from the brutality of its subject matter--there are a few thundering scenes of grisly violence that make it abundantly clear just what is at stake. These aren't played for comedy, and they stand out in stark contrast to the movie's more humorous moments. There are so many tones in Sexy Beast that it seems impossible that Glazer could juggle them all, yet he does. The movie is all of one piece, preposterous as it is--and that includes the machine-gun-toting, six-foot mutant rabbit that haunts Gal's dreams. But, like so many things in Sexy Beast, it's something you really have to see for yourself.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick