'44 Inch Chest'

Despite glorious performances from an ace cast, Venville's helming otherwise lacks cinematic flair.

Five hard men kidnap a waiter and contemplate killing him for sleeping with one of their wives in the claustrophobic Brit drama “44 Inch Chest.” Long-gestating second script by “Sexy Beast” scribes Louis Mellis and David Scinto has finally been brought to fruition by commercials director Malcolm Venville, who elicits glorious perfs from an ace cast, especially Ray Winstone. But Venville’s helming otherwise lacks the cinematic flair Jonathan Glazer brought to “Beast,” which only draws attention to the script’s scrawny dramatic figure. Intensely strong language makes the pic seem more violent than it is, but will still repel delicate sensibilities.

The fact that the pic’s opener is so striking — a comic yet ominous sequence in which heartbroken car salesman Colin Diamond (Winstone) is discovered lying on the floor of his wrecked home, listening over and over again to Harry Nilsson’s power dirge “Without You” — only serves to make the subsequent action seem that much flatter. Like the pic’s characters, the script seems unsure of what to do with itself after setting up its core scenario.

Turns out when Colin’s wife, Liz (Joanne Whalley), told her hubby she was leaving him for another man, a French waiter known only as Loverboy (an underused Melvil Poupaud), Colin went ballistic, beating the lover’s name out of her (mercifully, not that graphically seen onscreen). Colin plans on retribution, assembling old friends with tempers as nasty as his own: cold-eyed gambler Meredith (Ian McShane), who happens to be gay; rat-like Mal (Stephen Dillane); sadistic sexagenarian Old Man Peanut (John Hurt); and Archie (Tom Wilkinson), Colin’s best friend and seemingly the nicest of the lot, even if he’s also all for beating Loverboy to an inert pulp.

The fearsome five snatch Loverboy and lock him in a wardrobe in a disused London flat. Having sensed blood, Colin’s friends are twitching to go in for the kill, but they await the aggrieved man’s decision about how to proceed. So they wait … and wait … and wait, while Colin, a snivelling mess who can only burble on about how much he loved Liz, downs more whisky and stalls, thinking his one chance to get her back might reside in sparing Loverboy’s life.

To fill up the time, the men chat among themselves about a range of topics: old, underworld associates, what they got up to last night (Meredith won £40,000 gambling against another man, played vividly by Steven Berkoff), and essentially, although it’s never said as such, how much they all hate and fear women. The pic could easily elicit accusations of misogyny — especially given its percussive, unrelenting but eminently realistic use of the C-word — but it’s actually, at its best, an acute, unblinking portrait of misogyny in practice, not a misogynistic text itself.

Undoubtedly, the pic’s strong suit is its polyphonic, expletive-ridden dialogue, masterfully delivered by the ensemble and crisply edited by Rick Russell. Pinter reps an obvious, possibly too obvious, touchstone, palpable as much in the quasi-poetic use of vernacular as in the intentional, slightly too arch withholding of key information.

The actors go at the material with obvious relish, playing off each other’s rhythms beautifully and infusing the material with just the right blend of theatricality (these characters are themselves play-acting toughs, in a way) and naturalism. Winstone stands out with the meatiest part if only for taking material squarely in his comfort zone to a much higher level; of all the Cockney hard nuts he’s played, Colin Diamond may be his King Lear.

On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the pic’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.

Apart from playing around with voiceover in the flashbacks, Venville hasn’t many tricks up his sleeve (perhaps because of budgetary considerations) that would punch up the material and make it seem like more than a legit work with extra trimmings, or “Reservoir Dogs” without the style, sass and superb script.

44 Inch Chest

U.K.-U.S.-Australia

Production

A Momentum Pictures (in U.K.) release of a Prescience Media I (U.K.)/Omni Films (U.S.)/Twilight Prod. (Australia)/Entertainment Corp. (U.S.) presentation, in association with IM Global, of an Anonymous Content, Passenger Prod. (U.S.) production. (International sales: IM Global, Los Angeles.) Produced by Richard Brown, Steve Golin. Executive producers, Paul Green, Dave Morrison, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Glenn Brown, Stuart Ford, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Louis Mellis, David Scinto. Co-producer, Peter Heslop. Directed by Malcolm Venville. Screenplay, Louis Mellis, David Scinto.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Daniel Landin; editor, Rick Russell; music, Angelo Badalamenti, 100 Suns; production designer, John Stevenson; art director, Nick Gottschalk; set decorator, Gemma Ryan; costume designer, Caroline Harris; sound (Dolby Digital, SDDS, DTS) Danny Hambrook; supervising sound editor, James Mather; visual effects supervisor, Paddy Eason; assistant director, Martin Harrison; second unit director, Thomas Carty; second unit camera, Federico Alfonso; casting, Gary Davy. Reviewed at London Film Festival (Film on the Square), Oct. 12, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Colin Diamond - Ray Winstone Meredith - Ian McShane Old Man Peanut - John Hurt Archie - Tom Wilkinson Mal - Stephen Dillane Liz Diamond - Joanne Whalley Loverboy - Melvil Poupaud Tippi Gordon - Steven Berkoff

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