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Sexy Beast

  sexy beast
Ben Kingsley gives Patrick Stewart a run for his bald-headed money.

© 2001, Fox Searchlight
All Rights Reserved

Two minutes into "Sexy Beast" (IMDb listing) you will know that the movie is on to something special. The movie begins with Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone), basking in the sun—"bloody hell, I'm roastin'" are his first words in the movie—of his mountain mansion in a desert-like region on the Spanish coast. The image of Gal's tanned, overweight frame covered by nothing but a skimpy yellow bikini bottom pasted against a bright white pool patio, is priceless. Why? Because director Jonathan Glazer wants it to be priceless.

He takes great care in framing different views of Gal, moving the camera very slowly as the opening credits appear in a funky purple shade. You get the sense, watching Glazer set up the scene with such grace, that something is about to happen. Suspense begins to build. A boulder comes crashing down the mountain toward Gal's gorgeous house—no, at his pool and at Gal. The boulder takes a giant bounce over Gal's head and goes flying into the pool, causing a glorious splash.

This scene gloriously foreshadows what is to come; it's also one of the best opening scenes this year (although the first few chilling minutes of "Memento" still take the prize). "Sexy Beast," it should be mentioned, is Glazer's first feature film. Glazer, like Spike Jonze and David Fincher, got his start with music videos. If you've ever seen his take on Radiohead's "Karma Police" then you know this guy is a special talent. He proves as much in the first five minutes of the film.

And the film hasn't even gotten to Ben Kingsley yet. His performance in "Sexy Beast" is being called one of his greatest if not the greatest of his distinguished career (how many British actors could play both Ghandi and Meyer Lansky?). In the film, he plays Don Logan, a criminal with a thick London accent and a frenzy of bipolar mania. Despite Kingsley's diminutive presence, he's larger than life in this film. His bald head, goatee and protruding ears echo the popular image of old Scratch himself.

The other characters in the film act as if Don actually is the devil. Gal, the aforementioned retired gangster from London, has settled into a paradise-like existence in Spain with his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), a former porn star who Gal loves nevertheless. Along with fellow retirees, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and his wife Jackie (Juliane White), Gal and Deedee live the good life, partying with Aitch and Jackie while basking in the sun.

Until Don arrives from London, that is. Actually, the dread starts before Kingsley even appears on screen. This, one of the best scenes in the movie, is a testament to Glazer's skills as a filmmaker. The two couples meet for dinner one night, but Aitch and Jackie look as if they've been told they've got six weeks to live. Gal assumes the two are having a marital tiff but they tell Gal they got a call from Don, and Gal instantly looks as if someone has clubbed him in the stomach and knocked the wind out of him. That's how dangerous Don is.

Don wants Gal for a job; a heist back in London. Don is working for higher-up gangsters, including the malevolent Teddy Bass (coolly played by Ian McShane). There's another brilliant scene when Don sits down with Gal to explain the history behind the planned heist; Glazer cleverly shows snapshots from the past when Don himself is first being told about the plan and splices them into the present conversation with Gal. The past and present play off one another with fast-paced wit and it creates the best dialogue exchange in the film. I won't go into the details of why Teddy wants to rob this particular bank because it sets up a surprising finale, but the plot is involving, unlike other recent disappointments that rely on the "one last heist" cliché. The robbery itself is amazing to watch and Glazer shows off his technical expertise in a truly original sequence.

Back to Kingsley. When he first arrives, Don is jovial and affable, like an old friend stopping by for a visit. But as he lingers at Gal's house, he becomes vulgar and insulting until he bullies his way to his mission. He says Gal is coming with him back to London for this last robbery. End of story. Of course, Gal doesn't want to leave Deedee and his paradise so he politely says no. Then Don goes to work on him. One minute, Don is finessing Gal by calling him a "big lovable bloke" (which he is) and the next minute he's terrorizing Gal and friends, ranting like a madman. "I won't let you be happy! Why should I?" he screams. You get the sense that although Don is ready to kill Gal at any moment, he is secretly yearning for Gal's approval, friendship and willingness to do the job. To Don, Gal's resistance parallels a friend who turns his back on an important favor. Don is insulted, even hurt, by Gal and he explodes—repeatedly. Great villains are never just maniacs, however. Kingsley's Don is a great screen villain, perhaps the best to come along in the last five years, because the role is rich and layered (thanks to great writing from Louis Mellis and David Scinto). Don isn't just a sociopathic criminal; there's something else going on here, some hidden motive lurking within him. When it finally boils to the surface, it provides a gripping climax.

As frightening and ferocious as Don as is, Gal tries to hold his ground, even after Don assaults him. It's a magnificent battle of will. The tension builds to a climax at Gal's home and then, surprisingly, just as the conflict is about to be resolved, the film cuts away and jumps ahead to the heist.

The chronological breaks sets up a juicy mystery about the in-between time as well as an eye-popping finish where the past and present are meshed together in one big climax (like heist-planning dialogue). But the film becomes a bit too quiet and loses energy as Don disappears for a while. If there's one flaw in the movie, it's that Kingsley isn't in the film enough in the third act.

Even with this noticeable flaw, this is a spectacular film and beats all other crime capers released this year. Glazer's direction is dazzling, the writing is fresh and the performances are enthralling. Winstone is a well-known British character actor but is undiscovered by Hollywood; that should change soon because he is perfect in "Sexy Beast." As Gal, he provides the heart of the movie—a genial, humorous anti-hero. Kingsley, however, is the force that drives the movie, and he should get an Oscar nomination at the very least. This film validates Kingsley's remarkable range and skill. "Sexy Beast" also serves notice that a new talent has arrived. Glazer, frankly, is a star and he shames the hack directors and slick producers that are dominating Hollywood. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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