The Film: 5/5
Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone) used to be one of the top safecrackers in the London underworld. After doing a nine-year prison stretch for a job that went awry he has retired from the criminal life to the sun-drenched south of Spain to live out his twilight years in peace and luxury with his former porn star wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) along with best friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and his wife Jackie (Julianne White). Gal's relaxed life is thrown into upheaval when former compatriot in crime Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) arrives to personally coerce him into accepting one last job. Icy crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) has concocted a plan to break into an impenetrable bank vault after being tipped off to its possible vulnerabilities by bisexual bank chairman Harry (James Fox), and he needs Don to assemble a team of eight of London's toughest criminals to pull the robbery off. Having become accustomed to a more laidback lifestyle Gal initially refuses the offer, but he finds that turning down the volatile Logan is easier said than done. Don's incessant psychological harassment of Gal, Deedee, and their friends brings a few salacious secrets out into the open, and soon Dove finds himself heading for a showdown with the most dangerous men he ever knew and the most difficult heist of his career.
Fourteen years ago, Guy Ritchie’s first British bullets and buffoonery crime flick Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels arrived in theaters on both sides of the pond and caused a minor revolution. In the U.K. that is. Here in the States we had long been accustomed to Tarantino wannabes pumping out low-budget violent comedies that knew the words but not the music, so to speak. Ritchie’s movie brought about a major revival of the British gangster film and the pale-faced imitators were soon unleashed upon movie screens in ol’ Blighty and abroad like a plague of avaricious mediocrity. Some were good (including Ritchie’s 2001 Lock, Stock follow-up Snatch, which I consider to be the director’s finest work to date), while the majority reeked of foul desperation and talent in front of and behind the camera gone to scandalous waste. Like any overexposed subgenre of cinema there are usually a few jewels to be found buried deep in the mountain of dung. Sexy Beast, the feature film directorial debut of music video helmer Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), is the best British gangster flick since Get Carter brought us a vengeance-minded Michael Caine tearing the Newcastle underworld a new bum hole. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a silky smooth mint mojito spiked with a gut-punching dose of strychnine, and there is no other movie quite like it in the history of cinema.
After all, what other film in existence comes bearing the indelible, time capsule-worthy visual of Ben Kingsley - motherfuckin’ Gandhi! - as the hardest of London lawbreaking hard men giving Ray Winstone, an actor who usually plays characters who could make Satan shit his pants with a simple angry facial tic, multiple verbal and physical beatdowns peppered with vulgarity and violence? Only Sexy Beast, that’s what. More than a decade after it first became a critics’ favorite and garnered a cult following on home video the film makes its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray. Time has not done a thing to take the edge off of the sinful pleasures and storytelling mastery Glazer and screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto conjured. Watching it for the first time since 2002 I was amazed at how well Sexy Beast has aged; it really stands apart from the onslaught of pale imitators by taking a vastly different approach to the time-worn story of a retired criminal taking on the proverbial one last job. Gal Dove is perfectly content to live out the rest of his years in sunny Spain with his loving wife by his side. Money never plays a factor in his decision to return to London for the classic bank heist. Once Don Logan joins the picture he has to resist being motivated purely out of fear, but it is that fear that ultimately compels him to do the job, only for dissimilar reasons.
The majority of Sexy Beast is set at Gal’s luxurious home in Spain, with its sun-burnished open spaces providing a stark contrast to the rainy, cold, and claustrophobic intensity of the crucial final act set in London. Glazer and his writers use simple but evocative imagery to communicate brilliantly what dialogue often fails at accomplishing as effectively, beginning with the surprising opening sequence which begins with Gal working on his tan and ends with him and local boy Enrique (Alvaro Monje) inspecting a boulder that has rolled down the hill behind Gal’s house and plummeted into his swimming pool. His well-earned life of peace and pleasure is about to be rocked to its very core by a force of nature capable of doing great harm to anything and everything in its path. The boulder will be the least of Gal’s problems when Kingsley’s Don Logan shows up with intentions that neither Gal or his wife and friends have trouble figuring out. Kingsley has never been less than one of our finest living dramatic actors, but in Sexy Beast he delivers a performance of fiery conviction laced with rapid fire Cockney vulgarity and raw fury. This is a side of the actor that no one could have seen coming when the film was first released, much like the character of Logan himself. Kingsley digs in deep beneath the skin of this legendary bastard whose very name has the power to reduce the toughest of tough guys to cowering simpletons and finds a few traces of a soul that lurk within his every curse and con. If he had won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the year he was nominated for his game-changing performance as a man opposite in every way, shape, and form from Gandhi it would have been one of the greatest coups in the history of Academy Awards. Regardless of that idiotic oversight from a governing body I put absolutely no faith in these days, the always-reliable Kingsley must been seen to be believed here.
It’s a testament to the strength of the material and Glazer’s adept direction that Kingsley never blows away his co-stars. Far from it, leading man Ray Winstone turns in some of the most nuanced work of his career. Often one of British cinema’s go-to big screen badasses, Winstone can bring some Logan-style spitting rage to characters who operate on both sides of the law. But there is much more to Gal Dove than looking like he could eat his way out of the Bastille. This is a man who was once on Logan’s equal - maybe higher - and he still commands great respect in the London underworld. But retirement has made the man soft and content, and that’s just the way he likes it. Even when he’s in the presence of Don Logan Gal manages to maintain a calm and authoritative composure, playing the affable host to his unwanted guest and trying to talk his way out of Logan’s proposal without making it seem like he’s scared of possible reactions. This is a quieter Winstone than we typically see, but it is no less powerful and he makes Dove’s fear and desperation believable. Ian McShane matches the performances of the film’s dueling stars with his old curdled blend of silken charisma and unblinking menace, not to mention cultivating the mother of all withering gazes. One of the most enduring images amidst Sexy Beast’s lush visual tapestry is the complete lack of emotion behind the eyes of Teddy Bass. Amanda Redman (the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Little Dorrit) stands out in the supporting cast as the strong but vulnerable woman giving Dove a reason to survive, while lesser-known actors Julianne White and Cavan Kendall (who died in October 1999 shortly before Sexy Beast made its theatrical debut) both give fine performances as the Dove’s dear friends with their own reasons to fear the wrath of Don Logan. James Fox - who played a violent London gangster not unlike Dove and Logan three decades prior to Sexy Beast in the hallucinatory cult classic Performance - does well in the small, pivotal role of Harry.
Glazer, working with cinematographer Ivan Bird, makes Sexy Beast into a four-course visual smorgasbord of imagery that sticks in the brain and sometimes even in the heart. He favors filming his actors in tight close-ups, emphasizing faces tensing up and looking practically drained of life, and through Bird’s exquisite photography brings a painterly composition to most of the film’s memorable scenes. The editing by John Scott (Mad Dog Morgan) and Sam Sneade (White Lightnin’) shifts from languidly-paced takes to jolting fast cuts in a way that can often make certain moments feel like highlight reels from someone’s waking nightmares. Roque Banos (the recent remakes of The Evil Dead and Oldboy) is credited with the music score, but his usually solid contributions take a back seat to the hard-driving soundtrack by trip-hop group UNKLE that ably captures the intensity and emotion of the film without calling too much attention to itself, backed up by classic cuts from Dean Martin and the Stranglers.
For reasons unbeknownst to me Twilight Time has outfitted the Blu-ray debut of Sexy Beast with two 1080p HD viewing options: you can watch the film either in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio or in a greatly compressed 1.78:1 transfer instead. If you're a purist the first option is the best way to go; though the 1.78:1 looks good, the 2.35:1 version is a thing of beauty. The attractive scenery of Spain is enriched by warm colors and sharp resolution and the steely blue filters of the scenes in London provide a gorgeous and intimidating contrast. Grain is kept to a bare minimum while softer focus moments gain much-needed clarity. If you watch the film in the 1.78:1 option much of the heightened visual detail is lost in the compression. I couldn't detect any differences in the disc's dual English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Every component of the immersive sound mix comes through with sparkling lucidity and distortion is non-existent. English subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Ported over from the 2002 Fox DVD are a pleasant, conversational commentary track with Kingsley and producer Jeremy Thomas, a brief behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew interviews that barely scratch the surface (8 minutes), and a theatrical trailer. The Banos/UNKLE score is given it own isolated track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, while a booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo is included on the inside of the Blu-ray case.
A classic British crime drama that values the development of unique, three-dimensional characters and a carefully unfolding plot to take precedent over visual flash (though there is plenty of that on hand as well), Sexy Beast is the finest film the genre has produced since Jack Carter tore through Newcastle to avenge his brother's murder. The day may come when Jonathan Glazer's brilliant debut feature gets the extras-packed special edition release it truly deserves, but until then Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray with its stellar high-definition upgrade will do quite nicely. Only 3000 copies have been pressed so get yours before they sell out.