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Mob scene
Sexy Beast recalls a great British tradition


Guy Ritchie’s two recent MTV trifles, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, have eclipsed a great British tradition, the mob movie. Stretching back to the early Hitchcock, it includes such disparate films as The Lavender Hill Mob, Performance, Get Carter, The Krays, and The Long Good Friday, which have in common a cockney swagger, a wry nihilism, and a privileged glimpse into the fascination and horror of pure evil that distinguishes them from their American counterparts (Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is a notable exception). Sexy Beast, the first film by Jonathan Glazer (his previous credits include a much-praised 60-second spot for Guinness) and screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto, partakes of that tradition, if self-consciously.

It’s a tradition that takes for granted quirky names like Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) and plot devices like the Temple of Doom–sized boulder that rolls down a cliff and nearly squashes Gal as he basks by his Costa del Sol poolside. The rock is a sign of bad things to come. Gal’s blissful Spanish retreat with his former-porn-star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), his best friend, Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and Aitch’s bombshell bride, Jackie (Julianne White), is invaded by Don Logan (Ben Kingsley). Don is an emissary from the old gang Gal thought he’d left behind in London, and he’s delivering an offer Gal can’t refuse.

The last person you’d expect to see pushing Ray Winstone around is the guy who won an Oscar playing Gandhi. But Kingsley’s Logan is utter id: infantile, pugnacious, repellent, and infuriatingly sexy. He browbeats Gal, unearths dirty secrets, and abuses him and his wife and friends at a dinner party that’s a cross between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and GoodFellas. His victory, though, proves a Pyrrhic one.

Meanwhile, back in London via whimsical flashbacks (a character’s name is mentioned ominously in conversation and there he is), the heist for which Gal has been chosen unfolds. Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), an icy mob kingpin with a black dye job that seems to leak onto his shirt, flirts with bank manager Harry (a tallowy James Fox) at a stodgy orgy no doubt catered by the same people who did Eyes Wide Shut. Harry is Teddy’s key to breaking into the bank’s vault, and Fox is the film’s link to Performance, the gender-bending, hallucinatory, Borges-bedazzled 1969 cult favorite from Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell in which Fox played the brutish hitman Chaz opposite androgynous former rock star Mick Jagger (Chaz’s boss in that film was also called Harry).

That film sought to probe the mysteries of evil, consciousness, and identity, and Beast goes along for a bit of the ride. As the boulder sequence suggests, Glazer doesn’t have a light hand when it comes to symbolism, and the portents Gal must confront include a bunny-eared humanoid with an Uzi, an image of the beast within that usually visits at dinner time. In quiet moments he’s consoled by the companionship of Enrique (Alvaro Monje), his wordless Spanish pool boy, an emblem of innocence and virtue, though an oddly homoerotic one. The heist also teems with metaphor — an underwater excavation evokes some of Performance’s loopier imagery. Beast digs deep for its significance, but that actually lies close to the surface, in the splendid performances and arcane, hilarious, if sometimes unintelligible dialogue. Every scene with Kingsley electrifies, but the rest give as good as they get, especially Redman as the spouse who stands up to her husband’s tormentor even when they both know it’s a bad idea. Kendall, too, is brittly goodnatured and ineffectual as Aitch.

Only Winstone comes across as disappointingly toothless, which, of course, is as it should be. The man has come to recognize macho violence as empty posturing and a waste of time (though you have to sympathize with Logan when he pulls his nutty act with airline personnel who insist he put out a cigarette). Lying in the sun with the wife beats breaking into banks or beating people up anyday. Unlike the dilettantes who just want to be sexy, Glazer takes the more traditional line and confronts the nature of the beast.

Issue Date: June 21-28, 2001