Ray Winstone, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman

Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer

In a time period dominated by a new wave of British gangster dramas – Guy Ritchie’s two profane and fast-moving ballads, the brilliant and visceral independent Gangster No. 1 (2000), and the bloody Essex Boys (1997) – Sexy Beast comes out as a refreshingly different piece of the genre.

Not to say that it isn’t profane, as there are quite possibly more uses of the two most horrendous words in the English vocabulary (one rhymes with “duck”, the other “runt”, if you’re wondering) than any of the above-mentioned films, and all contained in a brief and exhilarating 89-minute span.  But perhaps not as violent, as aside from the last twenty minutes there are no bodies blown away and not a liter of – to use the vernacular – claret spilt.  No, the strengths of Sexy Beast lie in its fast-paced story and three diverse masculine leads.

The first is the protagonist, Gal Dove, played by the imposing Ray Winstone, this time taking his boxer’s build to the plains of Spain, where it prunes in the swimming pool of a beautiful villa he shares with his wife and their only friends, the couple of Aitch and Jackie.

Just why this bruiser has chosen to let himself bake in the Spanish sun is answered during a dinner at a Spanish restaurante specializing in calamari, where Jackie, frightened out of her mind, arrives late with Aitch and informs Gal that Don Logan had given them a call.

The reactions from the quartet give the viewer just the barest idea as to what kind of character Don Logan is, and even then there is no way to prepare for such a dominating and transfixing screen character.

Sir Ben Kingsley deafens, debilitates and damages as Napoleonic gangster Don Logan, who comes to Gal’s villa with one thing in mind: to recruit Gal back to London for one last giant score.

“I’m going to have to turn this opportunity down,” Gal says quietly, the weight of his own mortality and his wife’s insistence at a refusal pressing on him.

“No!” Screams Don Logan.  “You’re going to have to turn this opportunity YES!”

Another quote that will be used in this review – not by Don Logan, unfortunately, but by conservative former Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter – further extends the particular you-have-to-see-this-to-believe-it quality of this performance:

“. . . Ben Kinglsey spraying saliva-lubricated variants of the F-word into the atmosphere like anti-aircraft fire for 10 solid minutes.”

While Hunter undoubtedly lambasted the film for this characteristic, I attribute it to being a large part of the film’s manic brilliance.  Not even considering how much of a character turn this is for the actor who once played Gandhi – the most beloved man in history if Mother Theresa is the most beloved woman and has since been dubbed a Knight of the Realm – his Don Logan is a caricature, a representation and a fantasy of the most sadistic, nut-job of a heavily-copied Cockney London gangster ever to exist.

When upon his first entrance into Gal’s fantastical desert-vista the viewer might at first thing he’s just … a bit off, maybe a bit anti-social and rude, a particular scene – sparked by his remembrance of a long-ago one-night stand with Jackie that resulted in him falling in love – in which he speaks to himself in the bathroom mirror wearing nothing on but a goatee, brings up the apparent madness which the characters knew all about but we are only now being made privy of.

Events unfold that, inexorably, bring Gal to London to participate in the climactic score.  But before this we have already been told of the big man himself – the Barack Obama to Don Logan’s Joe Biden – Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass.

To play a homosexual gangster lord – the former part of this sentence revealed in a drenching, maddening seconds-only sequence of McShane on all fours whipping around sopping hair – the actor must possess an incredible range of confidence and lend it either as poise or menace to his role.  McShane masters both, and has single-handedly made the term homosexual gangster decidedly un-paradoxical (he played another example in 2010’s 44 Inch Chest).

He is as cold-blooded and morally compromised as Don Logan, but has the guile, social graces and icy charm that makes him, in a way, even more terrifying.  The film’s final sequences, where he leads Gal to an apartment en route to the airport – all the time with a knowing dark smile on his face – are the most suspenseful of the film.

Jonathan Glazer directed nearly a dozen music videos – including the incredible “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai, and the seminal “Karma Police” video by Radiohead – before arriving at the Sexy Beast junction of his professional career.  His stylistic presence is known from the start, with the bright, pastel colors of Spain in full display (as is Ray Winstone’s significant speedo-wearing body).  And in the barely twenty-minute London sequence, the job itself – breaking into a bank by way of a neighboring bath house – incorporates stunning underwater photography and quick, fast-paced editing that complements just how hasty professional thieves have to be in the real world.

Sexy Beast is a well-directed, well-written dramatic film that just happens to be a violent, visceral gangster piece. Overlook one facet, and you unfortunately miss the whole, beautiful package.

Only minutes into the commentary or featurette the intrigued viewer is already being made aware that the film is Glazer’s vision of a love-story.  But what manner of love – Gal and his loyal wife Deedee, Teddy Bass and money, or Don Logan and Jackie – is up to you to decide.  Either route brings a satisfying couple moments of serious thought.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.org and guardian.co.uk, respectively.