A man retires, shortly before being approached again by an old work colleague begging him to do “just one last job”. It’s a tried and tested formula, the Johnson’s baby shampoo of the crime genre. Yet, Johnathan Glazer’s 2000 film debut, Sexy Beast, is a little different.
For starters, it’s the gangster that’s being begged to return to his game, his ex-partner in crime attempting shallowly to coax him out of his retirement bliss in sun-kissed (more like snogged) Spain. Ray Winstone plays the happily retired, now leather-skinned gangster ‘Gal’ with typical Winstone-ness, and Ben Kingsley Gal’s terrifically cuss-filled questioning ex-acquaintance. Glazer takes this cockney combo and sets it against Louis Mellis’s and David Scinto’s fast-paced screenplay and an unassuming Spanish landscape—the result is an odd contortion of hilarity, bewilderment and fear.
It is this concoction that makes Sexy Beast such a compelling piece of modern British drama, because it manages to combine all the traditional trademarks of American independent cinema and its underground culture with the classic cockney take brought to the mainstream by Guy Ritchie. It should scream try-hard British Tarantino, yet it is pulled off with such stylish panache that it avoids being confined to the wannabe realm, and instead asserts itself properly as one of the most original British films since the new millennium.
One of the most memorable aspects of the film by far is Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, whose bus of abuse—permanently directed towards Gal—never ceases to be funny. Forget the pleasantries, for Logan is all about the un-pleasantries: it is as if his goal is to make everyone else on earth as miserable as he is. The words spill from Kingsley’s mouth in an ironically graceful fashion, his cockney tone morphing every question and insult into some weird, jerky lullaby. Glazer enhances the brilliantness of Logan’s scripted characterisation with small, physical embellishments: Logan’s freshly-pressed white shirt’s refusal to crinkle goes hand in hand with his inability to take no for an answer, whilst the camera’s intense focus on Logan’s ever-wandering and constantly calculating eyes exposes the very machinery of Kingsley’s character.
As it is primarily a character-driven piece, it would be wrong to discount the excellent performance of Ray Winstone as Gal too, who’s more mentally stable and “down-to-earth” ex-con (if there ever was such a thing) forms the spine of the film and quickly becomes the audience’s most-trusted character. There are only ever hints to his past, as is true of every character in the film. It is this lack of exposition that makes the film so effective as a crime drama, because you spend half the time wondering what the crimes actually were. Yet, by the end of it all, you don’t really care: you’re just hoping Gal and his ex-porn star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), make it out alive.
The sheer power of the dialogue and acting distracts one from the fact that the film is only a mere 88 minutes in length, and that most of the action is split between just two places. But that is 88 minutes well-spent from any film fan’s view: it is a film drenched in iconography, if that’s your thing; it has a laugh-out-loud, quick-punch script, if that’s your thing; and it has guns, violence and high-profile heists, if that’s your thing. Sexy Beast shows all of the signs of Glazer’s directorial flare, and despite his current filmography resting at only three films, the fact that his career is book-ended by Sexy Beast and Under the Skin shows that Glazer is one of Britain’s most under-appreciated directing talents.