May 4, 2011 by abbyo
I love British gangster movies. I love them more than zombie movies, which is saying something. It’s a subject in which I consider myself fairly well-versed. I’ve even written papers on the minutiae and symbolism of “The Long Good Friday” and “Layer Cake,” and had a darn good time doing it. But, until a couple of weeks ago, I was wary talking about my fandom, because this is how those conversations usually went:
Person: You like movies, huh? What kind of movies?
Me: I really like British gangster movies.
Person: Oh, cool! So you’ve seen “Sexy Beast,” right?
Me: (muttering) Um…no.
Person: I’m sorry? I couldn’t hear.
Me: (a little louder) No. I haven’t seen it.
Okay, that last part is an exaggeration, but you get the idea. It’s kind of weird how often I’ve had to deal with my not having seen this movie—it once came up in an interview for a job that wasn’t even criticism-related. Apparently, missing out on “Sexy Beast” was a much bigger deal than I’d realized.
In any case, I can now hold my head up a little higher, because I’ve finally seen it. Everyone who tutted at me for overlooking it was right. I should have seen it sooner. It’s smart, funny, has compelling characters and a killer soundtrack. But it’s the brilliant directing and performances that take it from conventional territory and up into the higher-class of gangster movies.
The story is straightforward, and fairly basic for the genre. Ray Winstone is Gal, a retired criminal who’s living the good life in Spain with his wife and a couple of friends. But one day, a former partner-in-crime, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) shows up to recruit him for one last heist. And he’s not going to take no for an answer.
So: retired criminal trying to distance himself from his past gets called in for “one last job” that he doesn’t want to do. Pretty simple. We’ve seen it a hundred times, often with actors like Winstone playing the lead (it’s a role he seems born to play—he’s great at it). But nobody has done it before or since with a character like Don Logan. I’m convinced he’s one of the great characters of modern cinema, and it’s Kingsley’s unsettling-yet-hilarious performance that makes Don what he is. As Kingsley plays him, Don is terrifying, but terribly entertaining. He tries to maintain an air of cold composure, but when he (frequently) loses it, we get a look at someone who’s clearly got some dangerous mental issues. This is not someone you want as your enemy; though I’m not sure you’d want him as a friend, either. With Don, these two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive.
Having a character like Don shake up an otherwise-conventional crime thriller would be good enough for most people, but not for director Jonathan Glazer. He applies a smart, snappy visual style that kicks “Sexy Beast” up a notch on an intellectual scale, keeping company with the likes of “The Long Good Friday” in terms of compelling entertainment, and “The Hit” in terms of an art house sensibility. Glazer layers on symbolism and tricky shots without overdoing it, like a baker making a gorgeous-yet-practical wedding cake.
“Sexy Beast” is a top-shelf movie that functions well both as entertainment and as something more substantial. “The Long Good Friday” will forever remain my gold standard, mainly because of its place on the gangster movie timeline—it set the precedent for all the movies that came after it in terms of aesthetics and characterization—and I still think “Layer Cake” and “The Hit” have a bit more to offer in terms of character study. But “Sexy Beast” is the prettiest and the nuttiest of the bunch. If it were a person, it would probably be very much like Don Logan, at times sympathetic, coldly detached and straight-up nuts, but always exciting.
- I can’t go without mentioning Ian McShane, who also puts in a great performance as Teddy, the guy who organizes the job Don’s recruiting Gal for. I was used to seeing him all grizzled on “Deadwood,” but it turns out he cleans up well. He can do classy and manipulative as well as he can dirty and manipulative.
- I’m a big fan of the band The Stranglers, and I love that their music gets featured so often in movies like this. The opening scene, with “Peaches” playing in the background, was the first thing that let me know I was in for a good time.
- What is it with London gangsters retiring to Spain? “The Hit” has the same setting. Why is it such an attractive location?