Review by David Mumpower
September 5, 2001
Sexy Beast is the latest in a long line of sleek British imports that deal in the seedy criminal underworld. Inexorably linked to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Limey in public perception, the film stands on its own merits as the best performance in recent memory by former Best Actor Oscar winner Ben Kingsley. In the motion picture, he portrays Don Logan, a merciless, high-ranking thug in a vaguely defined criminal organization. He has been asked to assemble a small company of men for a virtually impossible heist, and, for obvious reasons, needs the best possible team members to accomplish this task. This entangles his fate with the one of Gal (Ray Winstone), a retired gangster who has pulled off the impossible. He has managed to get out of the criminal life and live happily-ever-after on Easy Street. He is blissfully married to his beloved Deedee, and they live together in a gorgeous villa in Spain. Gal's best friend, Aitch, and his stunning wife, Jackie, also moved from England, so the four of them live a contented existence, thanks to their ill-gotten booty.
After the good life is shown in small doses, a boulder comes crashing down in the middle of their pool, and it serves as a metaphor for the impending arrival of Logan. He is a wrecking ball of a human being who destroys anyone who has the audacity to go up against his decisions. When he chooses the retired Gal to be a part of his team, the immovable object has effectively scheduled a collision with the irresistible force.
One of the nice touches about Sexy Beast is that Don's arrival is described rather than displayed. Aitch and Jackie are given the uncomfortable assignment of making Gal the proverbial offer he can’t refuse and their wigged-out behavior as they describe Logan’s request/demand cleverly establishes the crime lord’s ferocity long before he gets to Spain. Once he arrives in Costa del Sol, he acts every bit as psychotic as expected and then some. He dominates conversations, deciding when people can talk and how they may reply. He has entire discussions with himself as he stands before the mirror shaving, and an instant after he talks about liking someone, he barges into the person's room and rousts the person out of bed. His inconsistency is, in fact, one of his most frightening characteristics. The knowledge that he might snap at any moment keeps all of the people who encounter him in defensive stances throughout the film.
Gal is in the most precarious position, because he does not want to endanger the existence he has found in Spain. Unfortunately for him, to secure that lifestyle indefinitely he is faced with only two options. He can come out of retirement and perform a job that could place him in prison if it goes wrong, or he can say no to Don and risk the wrath of a madman/killer. It's the Ogre's Choice. Gal bravely decides to decline Don's invitation, but over the course of the film, he learns that saying no once is not enough. Not nearly enough.
A game of cat-and-mouse ensues with this answer, as Don refuses to accept it and keeps pressuring Gal to change his mind. More and more, we come to learn that Don feels personally rejected, rather than seeing the matter as Gal’s professional decision. Since Mr. Logan has few, if any, real friends, being turned down by a man he likes has great significance. The film excels at demonstrating a texture to Ben Kingsley's performance that is never exactly spelled out but still made readily apparent. Logan's search is in no way professional, yet he can't be honest with himself about what his specific goals are for coming to Spain. Once his technical reason for being there has been addressed, he isn't able to leave and doesn't know why. For an actor of Ben Kingsley's ability, this is perfect subtext for him to chew through scenes with verve and focus. While many thespians would be driven to make the character have some form of redeeming social value in order to increase his appeal, Ben flies in the face of normalcy and makes the character of Don Logan the most repugnant, miserable bastard on the face of the planet Earth. His ferocious bullying is a badge of honor to him, and the film turns on the moment where he decides he's had enough.
Without giving away any more of the plot, it's worth noting to say that those people being bullied react with a similar ferocity when challenged by Don, and the resolution of these events is equal parts surprising and believable. In particular, Enrique, the houseboy who views Gal as a father figure, and Deedee, whom Don outs as a porn star, show unexpected behavior when the tension escalates. Aitch is also displayed in a light that is completely in opposition to the person he has been shown to be in the rest of the film. This entire sequence is an excellent example of the sum being larger than the parts, as everyone involved steps up their acting a notch for this key segment.
The film even uses a fascinating breakaway technique to enhance the metaphor of Don versus the quintet of Spaniards by showing a hunting excursion at the start of the film. Aitch, Gal and Enrique are shown hunting a bunny in the wild. As the film progresses, an altogether different scenario is shown. Gal begins to imagine that he is now the prey being hunted by a six-foot-tall bunny-man with unexpected artillery skills. The end of the movie cleverly ties together this vision with the reality of his relationship with Don.
One of the most interesting facets of Sexy Beast is that the sequences in London are secondary to the story for the most part. While the viewer is anticipating that a larger part of the criminal underworld in which Gal has made his fortune will become a focus for the plot, until the climactic robbery occurs, the characters outside of Spain are only utilized to cut away from the intensity of the encounters between Gal and Don and to tease the coming robbery attempt. The seamy organization for which they work is never really shown, which is unfortunate, because Logan’s boss, Teddy Bass, is the most interesting person in the film after the two leads, so I would have welcomed his role in larger doses. Having said that, he does play a significant part in the conclusion of the movie and demonstrates an apathetic nihilism that exceeds even Don’s personality in its creepiness. Also, the heist he helms is unexpectedly creative and very cool in concept. The flashbacks that occur during this robbery attempt can’t be described without spoilers, but I will say that your enjoyment of the film probably hinges on whether you like this portion of the film. Personally, I did. Quite a bit.
Sexy Beast is a film that is the very definition of style over substance. The movie oozes cool throughout, and at times left me thinking the director was entirely too impressed with himself. Even so, the performances given by Kingsley and Winstone are of the highest caliber, and the film's storyline and twists are very enjoyable. It's a slick film with multiple high spots that is definitely worth watching.