England has its own hallowed history of Modern gangster films that are a bit different from America’s. On one end is the cold, hard realism of “Get Carter” and “The Long Good Friday”, and on the other end are the hyper-kinetic stylings and humor of Mr. Madonna (Guy Ritchie) with “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and the fantastic “Snatch”. In his feature-directing debut, Jonathan Glazer falls somewhere in the middle with “Sexy Beast”.
It all starts out idyllic enough. Former London gangster Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) is quite enjoying his retirement in Spain with former porn star Deedee (Amanda Redman). Leisure life in his Spanish villa has nearly turned him into a loving, caring human being. Of course it won’t last.
Crime boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) has sent Gal’s brutal old rival Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) to “convince” him to come out of retirement to take part in one last big heist. Gal really, really doesn’t want to go. This causes a small problem. After much violence and ugliness ensue courtesy of Don, Gal is left with one really, really BIG problem.
Glazer, who came from directing commercials, injects the film with a great deal of visual style, quite appropriate to the material. However the director and screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto have also paid a great deal of attention to not just how the gangsters speak to each other, but also the methods and rituals by which they interact. This is where the “Beast” from the title comes from. Don and Teddy are like preening animals trying to assert their power over any of their own kind. This most vividly illustrates what Gal was trying to get away from. He’s too long out of the game to fully withstand the power games inflicted upon him by his old colleagues. Still, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
The big revelation here is Kingsley. This sure ain’t your father’s Ben Kingsley. This isn’t Gandhi anymore, this is the kind of guy who would beat Gandhi to death just for laughs. It’s nice to see the guy get down and dirty and prove himself willing and able to do anything Gary Oldman would do. Ray Winstone has made quite a visceral name for himself in the last few years, but in “Sexy Beast” Kingsley eats him alive.
This film isn’t without its flaws. A more literal beast of which Gal dreams seems a little contrived and unnecessary. Overall, it’s still a great time and it’s nice to see a new director willing to spend as much time with his actors as he does moving the camera around.