It’s very good, but Sexy Beast should have been great. It never quite is. Violent, cold-blooded, bitingly funny, deliberately quirky and boasting a script by newcomers Louis Mellis and David Scinto — replete with outrageous profanity (including a word common in British slang that tends to send some American viewers running for the exit in high dudgeon) — it’s the sort of film The Score might have been had it chosen not to play it safe. Indeed, the plots of the two films are almost identical: A retired gangster is coerced into pulling one more job. The difference lies in the quirky wit of Sexy Beast’s screenplay and the high-powered direction of music video and TV-commercial director Jonathan Glazer on his first feature film — not to mention that it manages to tell its story in about 40 minutes less time. Where The Score lumbers along under the weight of its impressive cast and the leaden direction of Frank Oz, Sexy Beast virtually leaps from the screen, crackling with energy and inventiveness. Just watch the breathlessly constructed, shot and edited sequence where the heist is outlined to see the difference between a real filmmaker and a traffic-cop director. From the moment we meet retired mobster Gal (Ray Winstone) — the decidedly unsexy sexy beast of the title — who finds himself nearly crushed to death by a runaway boulder that barely misses him and lands in his swimming pool, we know that his safe little retirement hacienda in Spain isn’t as safe as he might think. Metaphorically speaking, the boulder (which also ultimately serves as a clever plot device) is merely the harbinger of something even more dangerous about to descend on him with equal subtlety: the decidedly un-retired, utterly vicious gangster, Don Logan. An utterly out-of-character Ben Kingsley plays Don, and it’s a breathtaking performance — not in the least because one of the film’s few weaknesses is the fact that this character is somewhat underwritten. We are given ample evidence that the by-turns tacit and vulguarly loquacious Don is unregenerately nasty and even unhinged, but it’s never really made clear just why everyone is so utterly terrified of him. The script leaves it to Kingsley to convince us that they ought to be — and he does. From his very first line (which, like most of his lines, is unquotable here!), Kingsley assures us that fear of him is justified. He’s a force as dangerous as the runaway boulder … and even less predictable. However, his character poses a central problem for the film. Once Kingsley is onscreen, his sheer force tends to wipe everyone else off screen. When he’s absent, the film has a hard time recovering. It barely manages to do so partly due to the equally dangerous character of Teddy (Ian McShane) — the true mastermind of the heist for which Don wants Gal — but also because of the inventive, absurdly illogical heist itself. That these “brilliant” criminals have figured out a way into an impregnable vault through a swimming pool is reasonable. That it never occurs to them to drain the pool rather than conduct the entire operation underwater with scuba gear is a testament to the limitations of their “brilliance.” It also makes for a terrific and terrifically funny heist. This is just one more example of how Glazer and his screenwriters have managed to put a new twist on this very old material and give the film its own distinctive tone of voice. It doesn’t all work. It aims for the loopy greatness of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and never quite gets there. But it comes close enough to deserve a look.
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