Franky Four Fingers. Bullet Tooth Tony. Boris the Blade. Barry the Baptist. Porno king Hatchet Harry, who coshes his victims with a fifteen-inch black rubber cock. These are just a few of the horrible bastards who have captured the hearts and minds of young Brits over the past two or three years, thanks to the cinematic crime wave launched by Guy Ritchie’s hugely successful Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lock, Stock…, its follow-up Snatch and the entourage of cocky British gangster films that have followed in the wake of Ritchie’s success personify an in-your-face–think Oasis, think art-world bad boy Damien Hirst, think Maxim, FHM and Loaded–British export drive to show the world that there’s more to British culture than the mummified exhibits displayed on PBS.
And there’s no sign anywhere of a lull in the crime wave, as British producers, smelling filthy lucre, are courting and flattering ex-cons by the dozen. Rumor even has it that Ritchie’s planning to make another gangster flick, this time a bio-pic of Ronnie Knight, the former husband of soap star/siren Barbara Windsor, whose involvement in Britain’s biggest cash robbery earned him seven years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. It’s enough to make one scream, “Do me a bloody favor!” (as Ritchie’s characters often do). Well, Ritchie’s charms may have won over Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Madonna, to whom Ritchie’s married, but his films are too smugly ironic for their own good; there’s a vile, penny-dreadful take on working-class East London–so typical of Ritchie and middle-class England’s fascination with all things cockney, the patois of the area–that reduces and romanticizes gangland Britain to no more than a cockney minstrel show.
The fuel that Ritchie’s films run on is the rich East London vernacular, its celebrated rhyming slang, its vicious comic irony. Ritchie is clearly intoxicated by it, and his films are stitched together by verbal gags that sometimes sparkle but more often than not have a peculiarly depthless feel–like listening to a suburban white boy rap. There’s no sense of fear: The younger crooks in his films, the small faces trying to hustle their way into the criminal big time via the card table or the boxing ring, resemble the Ant Hill Mob from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, while the older crooks are sharp suits and funny nicknames in search of a character.
Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, however, is the perfect antidote to Guy Ritchie, the heist movie that Harold Pinter never got around to writing. Like Pinter’s early plays, what’s between the words is as important as the words themselves. There is real menace here, a context of violence that is more than style. The authenticity and danger, especially when its two leads go mano a mano with each other, come from the use of silence and pauses, and from Don Logan’s (Ben Kingsley) sudden, almost Tourette’s-like outbursts. To say that Sexy Beast is an evolutionary leap for the New Brit gangster film assumes that those following it will emulate its innovations. I doubt they will. But Sexy Beast dares to do something different: It makes its thugs think, and it treats the gangland milieu seriously.
Glazer’s strikingly mature and reflective directorial debut is about what happens to a middle-aged crook when he loses his yen for villainy and drops out. Gal Dove (a brilliant Ray Winstone), an old gangland legend, has decamped to Spain’s Costa Del Crime, leaving his gangster pastback in a grotty old England, which he’s quite happy to do, ta very much. He’s a beet root-skinned, thickset, ex-pat Brit who’s spent nine no-risk years sunning himself by his swimming pool, tempting skin cancer. Every day is a long hot summer, a still life, interrupted only by Deedee, the sexy ex-porno actress wife he adores, returning from her high-end shopping trips. And the occasional falling boulder that rolls down the hillside to which his villa is attached, and into his pool.
The falling boulder heralds the arrival of Don “Malky” Logan, an embittered and very scary former rival/colleague from Gal’s old manor who has his sights on bullying Gal into joining him and an elite firm of crooks who are masterminding a grandiose bank robbery. Don is an extraordinary amalgam of ressentiment and rage, and the fear he strikes in Gal, Deedee and their two friends, Aitch and Jackie, is matched by the fear he strikes in the viewer. Voices tremble at the mere mention of his name, let alone his company. He has the frame, gait and dress sense of a former jailbird who spent his years inside methodically. His tidy muscularity complements his smart but casual appearance, and his head’s shiny phallic texture recalls, in a rather wicked way, Kingsley’s celebrated performance as Gandhi (there’s a mischievous moment when we see Don, stripped to his undies, watching soccer on the telly in the meditative pose of the Mahatma). Gangster No 1., an earlier Brit flick from Acid House director Paul McGuigan, captured this menace in fits and starts. But in Don Logan, whether it’s the casual way he misses the toilet bowl when he pisses, or how he refuses to extinguish his cigarette on the plane, it’s constant. There hasn’t been such a frightening gangster since Joe Pesci said, “Do I amuse you?” to Ray Liotta in GoodFellas.
It’s Don’s subtle and ruthless verbal jabbing of Gal, first in an informal, almost matter-of-fact way when he tells him, “You’re wanted in London this Friday,” that starts Gal’s unraveling. Gal finds all kinds of ways of trying to say “No,” but you don’t say no to Don Logan, especially when he can probe every one of your weak spots. There’s a touch of the Gestapo in his interrogatory manner: the staccato drill of Don’s monosyllabic orders, the relentless exhortation to “Do the job,” the barking, prodding “yes, yes, yes, yes” to Gal’s “no,” and the sheer “fuck-offness,” as Don would put it, of his “Are you going to stand there like Porky Pig, hiding behind your ex-porn star wife’s skirt?”
Don’s got something here, and in fact, it’s Deedee who saves Gal’s skin. But it’s obvious that Don’s annoyance at Gal’s recalcitrance reveals a deep-seated loathing that goes beyond his animus toward Gal’s cushy domestic life: “They used to call you Gorgeous Gal,” Don taunts him, exhuming Gal’s memory of when, before exile softened him up, he was one of the London underworld’s most celebrated faces. Their exchanges, however, expose Don’s own wounds. Underneath his pit-bull exterior is a man of many torments; the way he verbally beats up on Gal and Deedee implies the motivations of a spurned lover. That we wonder whether Don holds some sort of torch for Gal is indicative of the new directions Sexy Beast takes us in, a stark contrast to Guy Ritchie’s sexually squeamish and closeted world.
Part of Sexy Beast‘s surprise comes from the fact that it’s a restoration work. Deedee may have bailed Gal out, but he returns to a rain-soaked London anyway, to the patria of his old stomping grounds, hoping to make peace and avert the suspicions of kingpin Teddy Bass (Ian McShane)–“Mr. Black Magic himself”–who wonders why Don Logan never returned from Spain. We go back in time here: Gal returns home, and so does the film, to the noirish pigment of the 1960s gangster flick, to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, John Boorman’s Point Blank and even Mike Hodges’s later Get Carter. The casting of McShane–who played Richard Burton’s gangland boyfriend in 1971’s Villain–as kingpin Bass, and James Fox–who was unforgettable as Chas, the repressed, possibly homosexual East End face in the wild and bohemian Performance–as Bass’s former lover who runs the bank that Bass plans to rob, is a respectful nod to, rather than a pastiche of, the 1960s gangster film. It’s also a symbolic return of the homoerotic subtext that has been lost in the new Brit gangster film.
Who would have expected this from a director of commercials and pop videos? But Glazer, aided by a pitch-perfect script, is a sorcerer who expertly marshals Winstone and Kingsley, and extends the territory of the genre with his mesmerizing command of space, contrast and color, and his vigorous timing. Sexy Beast starts slowly with the sharp, rich blues and yellows of Gal’s sweltering but sedate Almerian hideaway, turns apoplectic with the pitch-black fury of Don Logan’s nocturnal horror show and then cascades into the grimy kind-of-blue shades of gangland Britain. What starts so modestly as a meditation on the pleasures (and perils) of doing damn all has in its last movement the nerve and velocity of the gangster film at its purest and most primal.