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Tough, lean, and to the point, Sexy Beast is a dead-on portrait of criminals at their most seductively powerful and coarsely brutal. Very much like a short story in its scope and bearing, it drops a vicious villain into a passive group and watches the fur fly. Words may never hurt thee, but when backed by the monstrousness of which he's so obviously capable, Don Logan's words sting like whips. The tension in this show starts high and just keeps tightening.
Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired London criminal living an Idyllic life on a secluded villa in Southern Spain with his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) and another couple, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). Then Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) shows up to enlist Gal for another heist, and won't take no for answer. Back in London, top crook Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) has connected up with the shifty upperclass gent Harry (James Fox) and is preparing to break into the impregnable vault of Harry's bank, by digging an underwater tunnel. Already a swaggering, crass, abrasive thug, Don turns the heat up on Gal and his intimidated group, pressuring, badgering, and lashing out with vicious invectives that promise uncontrollable violence. Gal's determined to stay retired, but Don's pushing far, far too hard to be satisfied with any kind of polite refusal ...
Sexy Beast is almost too simple to be so good. Jonathan Glazer's direction does without distractions. Our view focuses on the character interactions, their spatial relationships to each another and mostly to Ben Kingsley's fearful Don Logan. Like a boulder crashing down a mountainside, there's no stopping this wound-up mass of rage and venom: his first introduction, striding through an airport, eyes forward and every muscle taut, is reminiscent of Lee Marvin's corridor walk in John Boorman's Point Blank.
The drama is a case of an irresistible force versus an immovable object. Gal is a low-rank English mobster who's retired to a Spanish hillside with a woman he dearly loves. He's as contented as can be -- deeply tanned, getting fat, and happy as an ordinary human with simple human relationships. Except that Don Logan isn't having any of it. Aggressive as a pit bull and confrontational to the point of apoplexy, Don will accept only one answer for his demands. When he doesn't get it there's no telling what he'll do. And with the weight of the entire London underworld behind him, Gal can't just tell him to &%#! off and scram. Not even when Don turns his obscene abuse on Deedee and Jackie.
It's frightening to see how overwhelmingly intimidating and forceful Ben Kingsley, a relatively small man, can make himself become. When he concentrates his eyes become unreasoning x-ray machines. It must be sheer acting power. Momentarily checked in his verbal onslaught, Don stares at himself in a bathroom mirror and works up a rage by calling himself obscene names. Compared to Kingsley's Don Logan, Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito is just a loose cannon suitable for intimidating nobodies. Gal, Aitch, Deedee and Jackie have plenty of experience with the London underworld -- and Don terrifies them.
Director Glazer and his cameraman Ivan Bird stylize the images just enough to give the picture an edge, without toppling into fetish territory. Seen from above, Gal roasts happily on his pool deck, wa-ay over to the left of the Panavision screen. Two shots are never used when one will do, and major sequences are sometimes covered from only one angle. The camera also doesn't move a great deal in the confrontation scenes. Little eye candy is offered to detract from the focus on the characters, that sit and stand in awkward groupings, too cowed by the horrid Don Logan to move. Their eyes tell it all.
Back in London we see the awful world Gal thought he had escaped. Only by keeping a completely unflappable cool can he survive around men like Teddy Bass, whose broad smile keeps hardening into the grimace of a killer shark. These mobsters stare through weary eyes that can't relax. They must stay mean if they are to maintain the edge of terror necessary to keep the hoods in line. Sexy Beast movie takes its place beside the highly recommended modern Brit crime dramas Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and The Hit.
In his first film Jonathan Glazer displays some classy heist moves. The centerpiece robbery doesn't bother to make much sense but works in its own dreamlike fashion. A dissolute, sagging James Fox (A Passage to India, The Chase) stares groggily at the girls of an orgy, and passively shows Teddy Bass the monstrous chrome vault that's the target for the raid. Wouldn't putting an entire vault's worth of currency and bonds underwater make much of the loot rather easy to trace? There are precious few establishing shots of any of the locations, and no chase scenes or narrow escapes. There is no fleeing from these killers, in London or Spain or anywhere else. All Gal can do is return the penetrating looks with nonchalant innocence and stick to his story ... stick to his story.
Actually, director Glazer does put some fancy icing on the cake. His visuals of Gal literally cooking himself under the Spanish sun are interrupted by a giant rock, that would seem to foretell the coming of Don Logan. One odd special effect shows Gal blowing a heart-shaped smoke ring, and another makes it look as though Gal and his wife are sleeping atop a Spanish town. Most striking is Gal's repeated dream vision of an animal monster that seems to represent the ferocity of the gangster life. Kind of a reverse on Raising Arizona's Lone Rider of the Apocalypse, this killer bunny lurks only in Gal's nightmares, until he encounters him in a waking dream as well. He also reminds us of the rabbit monster that would soon show up in Richard Kelly's enigmatic Donnie Darko.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Sexy Beast presents this suspenseful crime tale in a superb encoding that replicates the high style and clean lines of Ivan Bird's cinematography and JanHoullevigue's Production Design. Gal's Spanish retreat with its two-hearts-entwined swimming pool has a very specific connection to the story. Roque Baños' evocative music track has been given its own Isolated score track. The pop songs dropped into the mix range from Henry Mancini("Luzon") to Dean Martin to Derek Blackwell.
The disc has carried over the extras associated with Fox's earlier DVD release, a promotional featurette, an original (very good) trailer and an audio commentary with Sir Ben Kingsley and producer Jeremy Thomas. Kingsley doesn't get deep into his role but compliments the screenplay and the other actors. We also learn that some of the slick-looking decor was actually done on a budget: the formidable vault set was actually fairly flimsy, with aluminum foil taking the place of steel, etc.
Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes touch on the film's place in the annals of Brit crime cinema, and then contrasts the relentless aggressive crudity of Kingsley's Logan with the romantic place Gal and Deedee have found -- and fear they will lose.
One odd addition is a choice of aspect ratios, which I believe is imposed on just one encoding. Filmed in full-frame Super-35, Sexy Beast was reformatted to 2:35 for theatrical prints. A hit on the remote changes the playback to the 1:78 ratio, just by removing the letterboxing and adding information to the top and bottom of the screen. The 'scope ratio is a bit more stylish but the 'open matte' version is just as pleasing to the eye -- I wasn't really aware of the dead space above and below, as often happens with 1:85 films opened up to 1:37.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sexy Beast Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.