Anyone with any doubts about the range of Oscar winner Ben Kingsley should look no further than Sexy Beast, the ultra-stylish new British crime film that showcases a ferociously menacing performance by the man who once embodied that paragon of pacifism, Gandhi. Kingsley plays Don Logan, a volatile Cockney gangster who journeys to Spain's sun drenched Costa del Sol to coerce retired crook Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone) into returning to London for a major bank heist. Winstone himself has been a dangerous screen presence in films like Nil by Mouth and The War Zone, but Kingsley's explosive anti-Gandhi leaves him quaking in fear.
A dazzling feature debut by commercial and music-video director Jonathan Glazer (perhaps best known for Jamiroquai's vertiginous "Virtual Insanity" video), Sexy Beast begins in deceptively laid-back fashion, with the well-fed Dove lounging by his swimming pool, growling orders to his Spanish houseboy and generally savoring his retirement. Dove is happily married to Deedee (Amanda Redman), a former porn star, and shares the high life with their best friends, Aitch (Caven Kendall) and his lover Jackie (Julianne White). One day, a huge boulder comes loose from the hill above Dove's villa and crashes into the pool--a harbinger of the evil that's about to intrude on Dove's placid routine.
Dove's dreaded visitor is not the type who takes no for an answer. In clipped, elliptical exchanges, Dove struggles mightily to resist the entreaties of the bald, tattooed, unsmiling Logan, who becomes increasingly hostile and abusive as the showdown continues. Eventually, Logan storms off and heads for the airport, but an incident on the plane just before takeoff brings the psychopath back to Dove's doorstep, triggering a fatal confrontation.
What happened between Dove and Logan we'll learn soon enough, but, in a sense, Logan gets his way: Dove is soon en route to London and taking part in an elaborate scheme that involves breaking into a bank vault through a neighboring Turkish bathhouse. Ultimately, Dove returns to his Spanish getaway, but it's clear he'll never completely escape his past.
Louis Mellis and David Scinto's screenplay is oddly structured, but never less than compelling. The first half of the film, with its tense gamesmanship between Logan and Dove, has some of the darkly stylized rhythms of a Pinter or Mamet play, and you simply can't take your eyes off Kingsley as he threatens to implode at any moment. Once in London, Sexy Beast turns into an elaborate caper film, with a beautifully filmed sequence of the crime gang toiling underwater at the Turkish bath. Here, the leader of the gang, the malevolent Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), becomes a key player in the story--a new dark figure looming over Dove's hopes for a peaceful retirement.
As attention-grabbing as Kingsley's performance is, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without the witty, subtle partnering of his co-star, the gifted Winstone. An imposingly cocky presence when we first see him sunning in a tight swimsuit, Winstone elicits tremendous sympathy as a tough guy who simply wants to live a quiet, unhurried existence, enjoying his ill-gotten riches. His fear and loathing of the unpredictable Logan are painfully palpable in Winstone's skillful portrayal.
Working with longtime cinematographer Ivan Bird, director Glazer fills the screen with enticing and imaginative widescreen visuals, without overshadowing the gripping performances of his two leads. Sexy Beast, whose title could equally refer to Kingsley, Winstone or the seductiveness of the criminal life, is a welcome new entry in the tradition of high-style British crime films.