It’s not every day you get to see Gandhi hit someone in the face with a bottle. Really, that’s the sort of thing that got me interested in movies in the first place. I thought it was cool that when he was finished saving the universe in Star Wars, Han Solo could pick up a hat and a whip and do the same damn thing to Hitler and his goons. What an awesome guy - his occupation was saving the world, and he had TWO jobs! Or at least, that’s how I thought when I was a kid.
Viking Night: Sexy Beast
By Bruce Hall
June 5, 2012
Today, I understand that Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones are not the same guy. And of course we all know that Ben Kingsley isn’t the Father of India. But how great it is that occasionally, a performer can inhabit a character so utterly that you forget you’re looking at an actor. You forget you’re watching a movie. You forget you’ve had your hand submerged in searing hot popcorn and imitation pig fat for five minutes.
It’s this kind of performance that sets Sexy Beast in motion, after a somewhat over-long setup. Kingsley’s terrifying portrayal of mob enforcer Don Logan is present for about a quarter of the film - surprisingly little time, considering it’s Kingsley’s sneering mug on the film’s most recognizable advertising. On first viewing this might leave you tempted to dismiss Sexy Beast as a trifle. Part travel documentary, part heist movie, joined in the middle by a roiling tempest of fury. Only, I’m not sure the film is as disjointed as it appears.
The main character in this film isn’t Don Logan, it’s Gary Dove (Ray Winstone), an acquaintance of Don’s from another life. Gary and Don were once associates in a criminal outfit led by a ruthless mastermind named Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, looking like the devil himself). Over the years, Teddy’s crew has been behind a series of elaborately planned heists across London, and Don was a big part of it. Now, after serving nine years in prison to protect the gang, Don takes it upon himself to walk away from it all. He takes his ball and goes to Spain.
This is where the film opens. Don and his girlfriend Deedee (Amanda Redman), fellow expatriate Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and his main squeeze Jackie (Julianne White) enjoy a shared retirement here, far from England and the shadows of their mutual past. They sunbathe, they go hunting, they spend their days sunning by the pool and their nights sampling Tapas by candlelight. As far as I can tell, nothing about their lives sucks in any way.
This takes up not quite the first 15% of the film and it’s sufficiently languid to make you forget there’s a movie going on. You almost feel like you’re lying there by the pool with them, sipping Sangria and getting lobster-bod when a loose boulder from a nearby hill careens down the mountain and into Gary’s pool. It seems like an omen, and even more so when it comes to Gary’s attention that an old acquaintance has come to Spain to look him up.
Teddy Bass is planning another heist, and he needs his old safe cracker. To make his pitch, Teddy sends in the ultimate negotiator - a man physically incapable of taking no for an answer. Don Logan isn’t just what you’d call a hard man. He’s the walking embodiment of every disappointment, heartbreak, failure and betrayal experienced by every man woman and child on earth. He never smiles, rarely blinks, and only occasionally pees on the floor. He’s a sledgehammer in slacks. And now, he has an offer for Gary.
I’m not going to tell you whether he says yes or no because while the answer seems obvious, it’s not that simple. The thing that makes Sexy Beast seem jagged is that the way Kingsley dominates his time on screen, you’d think he’d be the central character. But as I said he’s not - Gary is. Don is a crucible - a snarling, spitting, cursing, living crucible through which Gary must pass just to have the chance at redemption.
The idea here is that you don’t get to just walk away from the life you’ve lived free and clear, without paying a toll of some kind. Not only will Don not take no for an answer, but he’s perfectly willing to ruin the lives of all his former compatriots to get what he wants. Gary makes a decision, but the movie’s last act requires him to answer for it, and by extension answer for turning his back on the gang. Sexy Beast is not a 100 percent traditionally structured story, which may be part of the reason it feels so uneven.
Of course, the other part of that might be because it IS uneven. Questions remain - at the end, did Gary really suffer for anything, or was this all just a minor convenience? Was he more conflicted than he let on about going back to a life of crime? Did Terry intend to teach Gary a lesson right from the start? If so, the payback doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal. It’s like the old joke about the Pink Gorilla who gets poked through the bars at the zoo and tears up an entire city block just to say “Tag, you’re it!”. Really? That’s it?
It was a calculated risk to exclusively spend the first act of the film luring the audience into a false sense of security, so that Don’s appearance is all the more jarring. It works, but it’s done so at the expense of giving us a true sense of everybody’s background and former relationship. It’s made clear early on that all of these characters share secrets. Yet, few of those secrets are explored throughout the story, and the ones that are get exposed for their lurid effect, and little more. This has the effect of making the consequences of Gary’s decisions seem less significant than they should.
Sexy Beast is a story about redemption, truth, consequences, and all that - but it takes place in a vacuum, like a television episode where the crisis is solved just in time for the last commercial, and next week it’s like nothing ever happened. It’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, but I have to give credit where credit is due - the film aspires to tell a familiar story in an unusual way. Whether you come away impressed or appalled, you will think about this movie for a while after it’s over and when a drama can do that, it’s an achievement in and of itself.
And if that’s not enough, it’s not every day you get to see Gandhi hit someone in the face with a bottle. That’s kind of cool, too.