Thursday, January 13, 2005

Review: "Sexy Beast" (2000)

There are some story ideas that have simply been worn threadbare with overuse, such as "the cop that doesn't play by the rules". Perhaps the most recent overused plot is "the criminal who is persuaded to do one last job". Most of these are heist pictures, so I tend not to mind the overuse. The heists themselves are often entertaining enough so that I can forgive the unoriginality of the plot. But one film that used this storyline five years ago was so engrossing, It could have had taken out the heist entirely and not been diminished in the least.

"Sexy Beast" opens on a palatial home in Spain, where a retired gangster named Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone) has been living the good life. He has plenty of money put away, he has a beautiful wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) and he spends his days sunning himself by the pool. The only violent actions left in his life is the occasional rabbit hunt in the desert. He soon gets word that an old criminal associate of his, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), is coming to visit and ask him to come and do one last job in London. And, as the audience will soon discover, Don Logan does not, not take "No" for an answer.

Symbolism, when it's overdone, can be really annoying. "Sexy Beast" manages to tread the fine line from the very first scene to the very last. Gal's life is first interrupted by a giant boulder that rolls down a mountain and lands in his swimming pool, and this mirrors the other force of nature that will quickly enter his life in the form of Logan. Soon, he is haunted by nightmares of an Uzi-toting rabbit wearing cowboy boots (this sounds like a ridiculous image, but trust me when I say that this is one of the most effective and convincing dream sequences I've ever seen done). He's haunted by the past he left behind, and Logan is a very vivid reminder of it.

When we later see Gal in London, it is jarring to be in the middle of the blue and black shades of a typically English downpour after being in the yellows and reds of the hot Spanish dessert. More than that, we notice a shot of Gal in a bathrobe and sitting on the bed in his posh hotel room. The whole image is of a soft man being put up in a soft place, like a tourist (which is what he is after having been away from his birthplace for so long). He's out of his element, and the thinly veiled contempt that the other criminals show towards him speaks volumes. The movie is all about Gal, and our attention and sympathies are with him every step of the way.

Don Logan is the flashier character, but that's partly because he's certifiably insane. It's not the entertaining insane he often see in villains, but rather the more genuine unpredictable insane that makes everyone, both characters and audience, uncomfortable and nervous. There's a moment when he talks a string of pure nonsense in the bathroom mirror, and his psychosis is almost hypnotic. At the time of the film's release, every reviewer felt contractually obligated to mention Ben Kingsley's most famous role of Ghandi. Comments like these give the impression that his performance is solely stunt casting, which it is not. Kingsley makes his presence known physically as well as audibly in every scene he's in. And we get to see the fierce intelligence behind his physical threats, particularly in a scene when he runs into trouble at the airport.

Final mention should also be made of Ian McShane, who plays mob boss Teddy Bass. Although his appearances in the film are brief and often quiet, he makes a distinct impression. He proves himself to be just as viscous as Logan, but in a more subtle way. I've read that he's currently impressing audiences with his villainous turn in the HBO Western series "Deadwood". If his character in that series is anything close to Teddy, then I can understand why people are taking notice of him.

This is a tough film to watch at times, but never to the point that you want to turn it off. You get totally caught up in the plight of Gal and his own descent into a familiar Hell. As much as I like films like "Ocean's 11", this is a heist film with a heart and soul far deeper than Clooney and company will ever go on one of their capers.

Nine out of Ten

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