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.