Don Logan won’t take "no" for an answer. Logan is a London mobster whose specialty is not safecracking or rat-whacking, but a pathological gift for intimidation. With his bald head, angular features and trim Van Dyke beard, he bears a disturbing resemblance to Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay. As portrayed by Ben Kingsley, he is one of the most fearsome, unnerving screen creations in ages.
The movie Logan occupies, Sexy Beast, is the latest in a string of sleek, elliptical crime pictures (following The Limey and Croupier) that hearken back to icy 60’s thrillers like Get Carter and Point Blank. Opening in heat-drenched coastal Spain, where a retired gangster, his wife and friends are on permanent holiday in the sun, and climaxing with a waterlogged heist in a London bank vault, Sexy Beast strives for a kind of hallucinogenic clarity it only partially achieves.
The retired gangster is Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone), resembling a plump red frankfurter on the grill as he luxuriates poolside. Within minutes his tranquility is shattered by an immense boulder, which rolls down the hill behind him and plunges into the pool, shattering the entwined-heart mosaic at its bottom. As a subtle piece of symbolism this event may leave something to be desired, but it’s an undeniably startling image. The tumbling boulder heralds the imminent arrival of Don Logan, a man from the past Gal has no desire to rekindle. Logan brings news of a bank job; his assignment is to round up the best possible crew, and that includes Gal. Gal’s wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), a woman with a shady past of her own, pleads with him not to accept the assignment, and indeed, Gal has no intention of doing so. But Logan is, to put it mildly, persistent.
What follows is the part of the story usually dismissed in short order. In a typical crime movie, Don would either threaten the life of Gal’s loved one or make a financial offer no sane crook could refuse. He does neither, and for a long stretch in the middle, Sexy Beast is transformed into a parlor psychodrama, complete with chiseled, Mamet-style dialogue and a ferociously theatrical turn from Kingsley. (It comes as no surprise to learn that screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto began as playwrights.) Logan uses his malignant intellect as a machine gun, furiously spitting his sentences, burning into his opponents’ psyches and zeroing in on their weaknesses. In the sheer force of his presence, his refusal to accept any viewpoint but his own, he’s like a menacing version of the old Saturday Night Live sketch "The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave." Eventually, though, the deal is made, Kingsley exits the picture, and the events that follow can’t help but feel a bit too commonplace, despite a handful of sharp visuals and performances.
First time director Jonathan Glazer comes from the world of commercials and music videos, but unlike his fellow Brit/crime enthusiast Guy Ritchie, he possesses a modicum of self-control. As Steven Soderbergh did in The Limey, Glazer skillfully employs one of the few positive advances in motion picture grammar that have flourished with the advent of nonlinear editing systems – the seamless interpolation of flashback material. That these temporal shifts can be easily digested by audiences without the need for cheesy oil dissolves and Vaseline halos is a somewhat encouraging sign that sophisticated storytelling hasn’t completely gone the way of the dodo. Glazer’s capitulations to visual excess are mercifully brief, notably when Gal experiences visions of some sort of anthropomorphic entity presumably representing his criminal past (it looks like a cross between Sasquatch and a jackrabbit).
Sexy Beast never really ventures out of the shallow end of the pool, and it’s certainly nowhere nearly as textured and resonant as The Limey, but it’s not easily dismissed as just another genre exercise, either. Kingsley’s performance assures that, as does the surreal sun-baked quality of Gal’s Spanish villa, which gradually takes on the air of a purgatorial tiki lounge. When the heist scene finally arrives – and we knew all along that it would – it feels like the sort of Hitchcockian set piece that arrives in a writer’s dreams, and that the rest of the screenplay is built around. If that’s the case, the tail is truly wagging the dog. In a conventional thriller, the scene would no doubt seem like a highlight – but in Sexy Beast, it can’t help but come as a letdown.