I’m starting to wonder if there’s been any British movie that have made it to the States that isn’t a crime or heist film! After Lock Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Essex Boys, all crime or caper heist films, my fourth British movie in as many years is Sexy Beast, yet another British crime/caper film. Besides having the most unlikely name, Sexy Beast happens to be the best of the lot. It’s a no-holds-barred character film in the guise of a crime film. The movie treats the heist as an almost secondary plot point, barely important, but just significant enough to bring the characters together.
The characters and the situation between them are at the root of Sexy Beast’s brilliance. It doesn’t hurt that director Johnatan Glazer is a whiz with the camera, able to blend the frenzy camerawork of Guy Ritchie with a mastery of characterization and mise-en-scene. Every scene in Sexy Beast bristles with energy and tension, even when nothing is happening, when no one is saying a word, or even moving.
The opening scene, of Gal (Ray Winstone ) sunbathing at the pool of his hilltop Spanish villa, is simply stunning. There is almost no dialogue, and Gal, an overweight retired British gangster in his ’50s, is not exactly an appealing physical specimen of a man. But the scene literally crackles with electricity, even before a giant boulder rolls down the hill and nearly crushes the easygoing Gal under its massive weight. The rest of the movie is shot in similar fashion — quiet scenes suddenly jarred with violence of the physical as well as the verbal kind. In Sexy Beast, what you say or do is almost as dangerous or as violent as what you don’t say or do. Indeed, the characters use stares and words to attack each other in every way. The physical violence, in fact, seems almost unnecessary under the verbal and unsaid assaults they use on each other.
The movie’s conflict comes in the form of a short, bald, and goateed mid-level gangster name Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), who has come to Spain to recruit Gal for the heist job that a high-level gangster has set up in London. Don not only shatters Don’s 9-year exile from the criminal life, but he brings a secret about Dee Dee (Gal’s ex-porn star wife) and Gal’s only friends, Jackie and Harry. Harry was also a mid-level gangster like Gal, and like Gal he has since retired to Spain to spend his time sunbathing and enjoying life with his wife Jackie. It seems that years ago, before Harry quit the life, Don had a one-night affair with Jackie, and it’s a night that Don still remembers. The big secret is that rather he admits to it or not, Don still wants Jackie, and coming to Spain to recruit Gal is just an excuse to see Jackie again.
Ben Kingsley gives a tremendous performance as Don, the short-stature and cheap little man with the bald head, $10 shirt and pants, and bulging artery veins. Don is a monster in a human body; he is a violent little thug who physically and mentally bullies Gal and everyone else around him. In short, Don is a despicable human being, and everyone knows it. One suspects, even Don himself knows it and dislikes what he is.
Most of Sexy Beast’s 80 minute running time is devoted to Don’s bullying of Gal to get him to London to participate in the heist. The heist itself takes up a scant 25 minutes. Sexy Beast is a powerful movie and is an emotionally draining one. Nothing happens the way we expect it to, and it’s almost impossible to predict the characters’ actions, or lack of action. It also proves that not all British gangsters have quirky personalities and funky nicknames, as Guy Ritchie would have you believe.
Jonathan Glazer (director) / Louis Mellis, David Scinto (screenplay)
CAST: Ray Winstone …. Gal
Ben Kingsley …. Don Logan
Ian McShane …. Teddy Bass
Amanda Redman …. Deedee