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Sexy Beast   B+

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Louis Mellis, David Scinto
Cast: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendall, Julianne White, Ian McShane, Alvaro Monje, James Fox.

Review by Rob Vaux

Sexy Beast opens with the indelible image of Ray Winstone baking like a lobster beneath the merciless Spanish sun. As he lies there placidly, his belly bulging over his disturbingly small Speedo, we sense a life that has slowed imperceptibly to a halt. Winstone's retired British criminal Gary "Gal" Dove, exists in that most elusive of all movie gangster dreams -- the lengthy reward following the last big score. So rare is it to see such a "happy ending" that its inevitable disruption by the ghosts of the past comes as more of a relief than a tragedy.

Director Jonathan Glazer has chosen a wonderful notion for his feature film debut. Sexy Beast follows the pattern of British crime thrillers like The Limey and Get Carter, but unlike many movies in its vein, Sexy Beast is more about conveying an attitude than telling a story. Rather than playing on the usual crime thriller motifs, it places us directly into the mindset of its slovenly protagonist, letting us experience the push-pull of his life. Gal seems very happy just where he is. Sexy Beast, however, isn't so sure. Dove's siesta is interrupted by a boulder crashing down from the nearby mountaintop, a surreal harbinger of things to come. His idyllic lifestyle, and that of his ex-porn queen wife (Amanda Redmen) and fellow émigré friends (Cavan Kendell and Julianne White), are about to be completely upended by the arrival of an old, and psychotic, associate, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley). Don wants Gal to fly back to England with him for another job -- a bank robbery requiring his specific expertise. Gal, having paid close attention to all those other gangster films, isn't interested, but Don is the last person in the world you want to say no to.

The film works adequately enough as a caper flick; the robbery has a reasonable amount of cleverness and Glazer has fun spinning it out for us. But its heart remains with its slow-roasted opening shot, and the implications of Dove's retirement. Is a life of leisure truly a desirable state of mind? Do the hard-earned rewards of a criminal career mean simply baking in the sun -- waiting for skin cancer to succeed where hated rivals failed? As Logan tears apart Dove's carefully crafted world, these questions weigh heavily on the mind. Glazer and his cast do a wonderful job of milking the potential of such a dilemma, and make us ask whether it truly is better to burn out than fade away.

Much has already been made of Kingsley's performance as Logan, but it is impossible to underestimate its impact on the film. He is a practiced psychopath, moving relentlessly forward lest he stagnate and die. Anyone who gets in his way is chum, and Kingsley's portrayal is truly terrifying. The script provides him with some brilliant, staccato dialogue which he uses to devastating effect; a simple string of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" hits us like a baseball bat. The other characters, sun-drenched and sleepy-eyed, can do nothing but react to him, shifting all eyes to his unblinking ferocity. In light of that, it's almost a detriment to Sexy Beast that he's not on the screen more often. We eagerly anticipate his arrival, and his shadow hangs on the screen long after he's gone. Winstone provides a decent foil, and Redman does some subtle work as the only character who isn't afraid of Logan, but in the end, the film belongs to Kingsley.

Glazer juxtaposes his showcase performer with imaginative, dream-like imagery, projecting his characters' fears and emotions into tangible form. Dove's descent from heaven to hell (and the fact that the one is unsettlingly similar to the other) takes place through content and setting, not the flashy camerawork one would expect from an ex-video director. The script doesn't hurt, either: some of the conversations in this film are as riveting as any gunfight, and provide a strong foundation for the characters' conflict. The results soak us completely in this world of strange sunburned gangsters, and ensure that Kingsley's assault rifle performance doesn't swallow the rest of the movie whole.

The English gangster film has enjoyed a resurgence of late (resonating, I suspect, from the days of Tarantino), and Sexy Beast proves that there's still some variety left in that formula. It doesn't feel like most thrillers, but remains as taut and engrossing as any in recent years. Unlike his protagonist, Glazer understands that you have to keep moving or die. Sexy Beast keeps moving with a vengeance.

Review published 06.25.2001.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

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