All dressed up with nowhere particular to go, “Sexy Beast” is an often enjoyable, massively uneven Brit ganglander with an almost surreal approach to the genre. Strongly cast, with a jaw-dropping perf by Ben Kingsley as a foul-mouthed Cockney gangster, and impregnated throughout with first-time director Jonathan Glazer’s musicvid/commercials background, this dark comedy/drama about a retired villain lured back from Spain to London for one final job could rustle up some business with a sexy ad-pub sell but leaves a curiously hollow feeling once the lights go up.
Shot a year ago in Almeria and London, pic has had an elongated post-production history, ending up at a mere 88 minutes (including credits) and with two editors. By happenstance or design, the movie’s structure is unbalanced, to put it mildly, with almost an hour devoted to leisurely exposition in Spain and most of the actual plot crammed into a final half-hour in London. Kingsley’s tour de force dominates the Iberian seg.
It’s not the kind of film to be approached with classical perceptions of narrative or form. Glazer and scripters Louis Mellis and David Scinto (whose 1995 play “Gangster No. 1” was recently filmed with Malcolm McDowell) have constructed a rich paella that mixes star routines with unreal moments, comedy with graphic violence, and melancholy with sad romance. Several are memorable on their own, without any of the parts adding up to a satisfying whole.
First reel is a zinger, with Ivan Bird’s sumptuously sunny widescreen images summoning up a life of ease as middle-aged London gangster Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) lounges by his pool in southern Spain and muses, in voiceover, about how much he dislikes cold, miserable Blighty. (From the very opening, British viewers will immediately get the visual shorthand of a Cockney villain retired to the so-called Costa del Crime.)
In the pic’s most stunning visual effect — a surreal precursor of events to come — Gal’s idyllic haven is literally shattered. Life for him, wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), guests Aitch (Cavan Kendall, who died soon after shooting) and Jackie (Julianne White), and local houseboy Enrique (Alvaro Monje) may never be the same again.
A figure from Gal’s past, tough guy Don Logan (Kingsley), wants Gal for a “low-risk” job back in the U.K. — and Don is someone you don’t say no to. While Gal agonizes about how to deal with this development, Don is already on a plane from London.
Kingsley’s appearance 20 minutes in ratches the movie up from an interesting but rather leisurely serio-comedy to a half-hour one-man show in which even Winstone, a master at Cockney ne’er-do-wells, is thrown into the shadows. Bald, trim and goateed, his arms covered in old-style gangster tatoos, Don is a portrait of repressed violence and psychosis that Kingsley attacks with glee. Though occasionally funny on a purely verbal level, Mellis and Scinto’s dialogue is not itself particularly sharp; most of the horror-show humor comes from wondering when Don is going to lose his icy cool and the spectacle of a serious actor like Kingsley mouthing an endless stream of gutter profanities.
As Don describes the job (due to start in a couple of days), London flashbacks limn the other characters, including the real boss, Teddy “Mr. Black Magic” Bass (Ian McShane). Viewer is suddenly aware of a distinct pecking order in ruthlessness and evil, with Gal, in fact, the softie of the bunch and Teddy at the very top of the food chain. As Don disappears from the picture, and the action shifts to London and the bank robbery (reminiscent of 1980’s “Loophole”), Gal finds himself doing a tiptoe with the devil in order to survive.
Glazer’s semiabstract approach to the material, and the film’s free juggling of time and flashbacks, is often very effective; the occasional moments of visual flash also tend to enhance the movie rather than dominate it. At base, however, “Sexy Beast” is an elaborate riff on not very much: imagine the same material told in a straightforward style and its script weaknesses, plot holes and lopsided character development become obvious. One whole side plot (Don having slept with Jackie) is rendered almost pointless in the final cut, as are houseboy Enrique’s exact purpose and Gal’s recurring fantasies of a beast that looks like a barbecued grinch.
Performances largely carry the day, with McShane scarily assured as the satanic Teddy and Redman making the most of her underwritten role as Gal’s subtly trashy wife. Winstone, reined back from his usual Cockney villains, is rather good, though his accent, in particular, could cause problems for viewers in North America, where Fox Searchlight will release the picture next year. Kingsley’s London accent is more a classically trained actor’s take on a Cockney, but always clear. Tech credits are tip-top throughout.
Title is an ironic term of endearment used by British women with men, as in “you sexy beast.”