The British film industry seems preoccupied with gangster movies lately; though John Boorman’s elegant, engaging “The General,” Mike Hodges’ laconic, meditative “Croupier” and Guy Ritchie’s rabid, shrieking “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” are very different pictures, they all belong to the genre which, for whatever reason, now outnumbers even light romantic comedies among English cinematic exports. The latest example comes from first-time director Jonathan Glazer, who’s made a name for himself as a master of commercials and music videos. His background is very much in evidence in “Sexy Beast.” It has a lot of surface sheen but despite a formidable cast, it’s fragmented, empty and needlessly obscure.
We learn from the script that many over-the-hill Brit mobsters retire with their ill-gotten gains to seaside villas on the Spanish coast, where they live out their latter years in relative comfort and leisure. One such is Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), an overweight fellow happily married to ex- prostitute Deedee (Amanda Redman). Unfortunately his pal Aitch (Cavan Kendall) brings him word that an old comrade in crime, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is flying in from London to induce Gal to come home for a job being put together by nasty kingpin Teddy Bass (Ian McShane): robbing the strongbox area of a bank presided over by supercilious Harry (James Fox), whom Teddy had met (as a flashback tells us) at an old-fashioned sex orgy. Don turns out to be a terrifying psychopath who had once bedded Aitch’s wife Jackie (Julianne White) and now refuses to accept Gal’s decision not to participate in the heist. After a final confrontation, however, we find Gal returning to Britain to be part of the caper, even though Logan has mysteriously disappeared en route. Bass is suspicious of Gal, but uses him on the job; whether Dove will survive to return to Deedee is nonetheless uncertain, and Don’s fate (as well as Harry’s) is yet to be revealed as well.
All this makes “Sexy Beast” sound more coherent and straightforward than it actually is: the picture is actually quite disjointed, with the various parts never fitting together harmoniously and crucial elements of the narrative simply lacking. It begins with a long, relatively light section on Gal’s pleasant retirement, marked by the picture’s most imaginative moment, an episode involving a bolder and a swimming pool. The tone changes with Logan’s arrival: the script becomes a harsh, vicious harangue in which the interloper in paradise verbally savages his old companions and threatens them if they interfere with his plans. The film then abruptly switches to heist mode in the last half-hour, though the mood here continues to be gloomy and tense. The denouement tries for clever surprise, but doesn’t really achieve it; the revelation of Logan’s fate is laboriously done, and the way in which Love profits (and suffers) from his actions all too obvious.
Among the performers, one can understand why Kingsley jumped at playing Logan: it’s a showy part, with lots of foul language and bitter outbursts combined with a controlled rage that can be very compelling, and Kingsley, admirably lithe and cooly menacing, milks it for all it’s worth. Winstone plays off him decently enough, but he can’t help seeming pallid by comparison, and his accent is sometimes so thick that one wishes subtitles had been employed. Redman suffers nobly as Dove’s wife, and McShane glowers appropriately as the Big Boss; but Fox is wasted in his few scenes as a snooty aristocrat. Alvaro Monje makes a strong impression as Enrique, Gal’s young native houseboy, but the relationship between them is never clearly defined; the gangster treats the boy almost paternally (and the kid responds with a filial devotion), but precisely why they feel as strongly as they do isn’t clarified. Other aspects of the narrative suggest some last-minute editing, too. Don’s previous dalliances with Jackie are left foggy and indistinct. It’s never explained whether Teddy is in league with Harry to rob the bank, and the final scene between them seems utterly arbitrary. There are occasional nightmarish inserts, in which Gal dreams about a hairy creature who might have stepped out of the “2001” prologue, that make no sense whatever and seem designed merely to make an easy visual impression. And while the very last sequence strives for a Hitchcockian sort of irony (think of “Lamb to the Slaughter,” for example), it comes off as simply heavy-handed.
To be fair, “Sexy Beast” does feature some lovely Spanish locales, nicely captured by cinematographer Ivan Bird. And at least the third of it which focuses on Kingsley’s bruvura turn has a certain morbid fascination–it’s like watching Gandhi completely losing control in modern dress (the pate and thinness are the same, the clothes and accent different). Otherwise, though, Glazer’s debut feels like an elongated commercial–pretty to look at, but contrived and vacuous. It falls midway between the heights of “The General” and the depths of “Snatch,” but unhappily comes closer to the latter. Perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on these British gangster flicks, even ones that attract top-flight actors. If even they can’t keep the genre alive, maybe it should be put mercifully to sleep.