Sexy Beast Directed by Jonathan Glazer Written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto Starring Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone Classification: NA Rating: *** Plump and pink, former English gangster Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) bakes by his pool, a towel full of ice cubes over his crotch and a beer near to hand. After a nine-year stretch in jail, he's free and somehow rich enough to retire, far from the chill and bad companionship of mouldy old London. He has retired to a villa in Spain down on the Costa del Sol, where his Spanish houseboy Enrique (Alvaro Monje) brings drinks and his big-haired, thick-lipped, former porn-star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman), provides him other comforts. Apart from some bad dreams -- about a donkey-eared hairy beast carrying a machine gun that rides up on a mule and shoots him -- Gal is happy.
The opening sequence of Jonathan Glazer's mischievous black comedy, Sexy Beast, is a big visual and aural meringue: pink flesh in a tiny yellow bathing suit, turquoise pool, sun-soaked gardens for the eye; Gal's salty and self-satisfied Cockney twang and the music of the Strangler's Peaches as accompaniment. (The soundtrack CD offers a unique assortment, "featuring the Stranglers, Henry Mancini and Dean Martin.")
Then, two things shatter Gal's tranquility. First, a huge boulder comes bouncing down the hill, flies over his head and lands at the bottom of his pool, smashing the tile. Second, at a restaurant dinner that night with his mate Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Aitch's wife Jackie (Julianne White), Gal learns that Don Logan, a fearful figure from the London underworld, is coming for a visit. The news is enough to turn everyone pale and sink their faces into their brandy snifters.
At its core, Sexy Beast is a thinly plotted and now conventionally ironic genre exercise that remains well worth seeing. First, it marks a flashy debut from director Glazer (he's won advertising awards, as well as directed videos for Massive Attack and Radiohead), anchored in the salty, obscenity-packed vernacular of writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto. It also features a couple of indelibly drawn performances from Winstone, as Gal, and Ben Kingsley, as the fearsome Don Logan. Winstone, who specialized in hulking, drunken fathers in Tim Roth's The War Zone and Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, is baby-soft and vulnerable here, too besotted by love and creature comforts to return to the game: "I'd be useless," he protests to Logan, who wants him for one last job.
As for Kingsley, he's about as far from Gandhi as you get here, apart from the bald head. Wearing a goatee, whippet-lean with prison tattoos up and down his arms, he bobs about stiffly, suggesting an angry, erect penis. He invades Gal's home, intrudes on his private space, abuses, cajoles and insults him. Unable to shake Gal out of retirement, he wakes in the night to urinate, pees on Gal's bathmat, and insults himself in the mirror, to try to work up his needed rage. It's a consciously bravura performance and Kingsley nails it to creepy perfection.
Writers Mellis and Scinto are playwrights, and Sexy Beast (the title, which might refer to any of the characters, is essentially a teaser) feels like an embryonic stage play that decided to become a hallucinogenic video fantasy. Most of the first two-thirds of the film take place in the single setting of Gal's villa, where the battle of wills between Don and Gal take place. In this stagy setting, there are distinct echoes of Harold Pinter (or his acolyte, David Mamet). The dialogue -- misogynistic, subliminally homo-erotic and vulgarity-strewn -- is both funky and funny. Don protests against Gal's "dirty insinuendoes." A mobster's description of a "wild, wild party" (illustrated by a tableau of middle-aged men and half-dressed women sitting on chairs, looking stoned and bored): "There were camcorders and cocaine. It was like something out of the Romans."
If the writers' dialogue is relatively strong, the structure is way off-balance, all psychological buildup and then quick action resolution. Unexpectedly, Gal returns to London to take on the job. The Cockney mob boss, Don's superior in nuttiness and intimidation, is a middle-aged man named Teddy (Ian McShane), a kingpin with badly dyed hair that makes him known as "Mr. Black Magic." Teddy (he looks like a plumper Bryan Ferry) wants Gal as part of a team to rob the safety-deposit boxes of his new banker boyfriend (James Fox).
The film's final third, which takes place mostly in London, is its weakest. The crime is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie's films ( Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), and involve homages to sixties heist flicks, lots of high-joltage, look-at-me direction and a parade of progressively more over-the-top characters. Like a lot of contemporary filmmaking on both the independent and the big studio levels, the technique is all about the manipulation of surface -- melting special effects and jumpy editing, saturated colours and speeded-up action. While it won't erase the memory of Welles or Hitchcock, Glazer's style is the cinematic slang of the moment, and his fresh take on an old genre opens some breathing space. Sexy Beast opens in Toronto today, on June 22 in Vancouver and June 29 in Calgary and Victoria.