California Literary Review

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Sexy Beast, #24

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May 5th, 2013 at 8:05 am

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Movie still: Sexy Beast

Alvaro Monje and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000-R)
TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Don Logan is a frighteningly malevolent mobster. He urinates on your floor, describes in detail his old sexual bouts with your best friend’s wife and rousts you from sleep with a heel stomp to the head.

Logan has the hair-trigger violent streak of Casino’s Nicky Santoro. He stabs you with words like Frank Costello in The Departed. The mere mention of his name instills gape-mouthed fear like The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Söze.

And this monster, this beast, is brilliantly created by a kind-faced, five-foot-eight English gentleman best remembered for his textured portrayal of the world’s foremost practitioner of nonviolence in Gandhi.

Sir Ben Kingsley becomes the ruthless Logan in Sexy Beast, and he’s 90 percent of the reason to watch the movie. The plotline here is straightforward, nothing special really. The action is sporadic. The supporting cast is strong—led by British veteran Ray Winstone, who’s actually the film’s lead, and Ian McShane, who can always dial up ominous.

But it’s Kingsley—throwing off Gandhi’s loincloth and round spectacles—who becomes the savage bully you’ll remember long after viewing Sexy Beast. A former Shakespearean actor, Kingsley nuanced the gentle accountant in Schindler’s List and the regal Persian ex-patriot in House of Sand and Fog. There’s nothing gentle or regal, though, about Kingsley’s portrayal of Don Logan. He fires insults with a bullet’s speed and a carving knife’s edge. He is a rabid dog, gnawing at your leg until it buckles. Friends, wives, strangers—no distinction matters as he hurls obscenities.

It’s a joy—albeit a frightening one—to watch the character at work. Even the way he sits on a chair. The smallest man in the room intimidates criminals twice his size with his posture—perfectly erect, all 90-degree angles. He radiates terror, even when he’s perfectly still.

Kingsley earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (the Oscar went to the obscure Jim Broadbent from the even more obscure movie Iris). In 2006, his work in Sexy Beast was ranked No. 97 among Premiere Magazine’s “100 Greatest Performances of All Time.”

And whom did Kingsley draw on to create this character?

“My maternal grandmother,” he told IFC’s Escape from Hollywood. “She was an extremely violent and unpleasant woman. She was racist, fascist and anti-Semitic. When I play great heroic Jews and great heroic dark people, I’m sticking two fingers up at her. When I played Don Logan, I was channeling her.”

Logan is a recruiter for the London mob assigned by his boss, Teddy Bass (McShane), to put together a team for a bank heist. The caper requires the skills of Gal Dove (Winstone), an expert safecracker.

Gal, however, is out of the business. He’s living in a villa on the Costa del Sol in Spain with his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), a retired porn star. He has plenty of money socked away. The last thing he wants to do is go back for one more job.

Sexy Beast’s opening scene shows Gal baking in a chaise lounge by his pool, a few empty Heinekens nearby. You hear what’s going through his mind: “People say, ‘Don’t you miss it, Gal?’ I say, ‘What, England? Nah. Fucking place. It’s a dump. Don’t make me laugh.’ Grey, grimy, sooty. . . . What a toilet. . . . They say, ‘What’s it like, then, Spain?’ And I’ll say, ‘It’s hot. Oh, it’s fucking hot.’ Too hot? Not for me, I love it.”

Into this paradise steps Logan, the houseguest from hell with a job offer that is not exactly cast as a proposition Gal has the option of declining. Logan puts Gal and Deedee—along with another retired mobster and his wife—through a torment that escalates from anxious courtesies to threats and gut punches. Winstone, often cast as a heavy (The Departed, Edge of Darkness), seems downright huggable by comparison. His character of Dove withstands Logan’s cruelty, trying to save his manhood without losing his life.

The duel of wills and wits grows increasingly ugly and violent. We won’t tell you how that portion of the movie ends—it’s a stunner—but Gal does return to London to assist in the bank heist. It’s a waterlogged caper in which the crooks drill into a safe-deposit vault from the pool of a Turkish bath adjacent to the bank. The vault, predictably, fills with water, leading to a strange scene in which stacks of money and priceless jewelry float through the murk as the robbers try to grab what they can.

Sexy Beast was directed by Jonathan Glazer—a native Londoner known mostly for his work on music videos and Guinness Beer commercials. We’re not sure why he’s only directed one motion picture since this—the confusing Birth, the story of a woman who becomes convinced that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her late husband. Here’s hoping Glazer gets more chances with films like this.

HIT: Other than the brilliant performance by Kingsley, the best thing about this movie may be its edgy soundtrack. It starts—as Gal lazes by his pool—with the song “Peaches” by the Stranglers (“Walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches”), and closes with Dean Martin’s “Sway” (“Dance with me, make me sway, like a lazy ocean hugs the shore”). The songs aren’t just great to listen to, they perfectly fit their scenes.

MISS: The strong Cockney accents can be difficult for an untrained ear to comprehend. Fortunately, the DVD offers English subtitles.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Ben Kingsley looks like a shaved weasel—fresh skin and a bleached goatee. He is Don Logan, a fear-of-God-inspiring bloke who, as inhabited by Kingsley, reaches for the scope and menace of Don Corleone, Keyser Söze and Bill Murray in What About Bob?”—Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle

GOOF: The plot of the film is about robbing an exclusive bank billed as having “the most elaborate security system in Europe.” If that’s the case, how do you explain the black-and-white monitors? The lack of motion sensors? The masonry wall—rather than hardened steel—that protects the back of the vault? Not exactly Fort Knox.

REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Worth stumbling upon anytime, if only to see what a powerful and dynamic actor Kingsley can be.

BEST LINE: Don Logan to Gal: “Shut up, cunt. You louse. You got some fucking neck ain’t you? Retired? Fuck off. You’re revolting. Look at your suntan, it’s leather. It’s like leather man, your skin. We could make a fucking suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, you know what I mean?”

This is not Logan’s vilest outburst, just his first of many.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The word “fuck”—and its derivatives—is used 115 times in this 89-minute film, or an average of once every 46 seconds.

PIVOTAL SCENES: After failing to bully Gal into the heist, Logan heads to the airport to get back to London. On the plane, he berates other passengers and responds to a stewardess’s request to put out a cigarette by blowing smoke in her face. He is removed from the flight and detained at the airport for a few hours.

Set free, he immediately heads back to Gal’s house—where, one more time, Gal tries to tell him he will “pass up the opportunity.”

“Not this time, Gal,” shouts Logan. “Not this fucking time. No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! No! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! No! Not this fucking time. No fucking way. No fucking way, no fucking way, no fucking way!”

That’s 29 repetitions of the word “no,” if you’re scoring at home.

When spitting invective doesn’t work, Logan resorts to violence, punching Gal in the face. This time, he does not intend to leave for London alone.

DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The closing credits, which include the words, “Good-bye, sweet Cavan.” That’s a tribute to actor Cavan Kendall, who plays Gal’s buddy Aitch. He died of cancer at age 57, passing away between the time the movie was shot and released.

CASTING CALL: Anthony Hopkins was considered for the role of Don Logan.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Sporadic. Most of the movie’s shock effect is in the dialogue, but occasionally Logan will smack a teenager with the butt end of a rifle or wake someone by literally kicking him out of bed.

BODY COUNT: Just two, although one is a glorious, bloody death scene.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Limey, director Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 crime thriller with the same tense pace and occasional incomprehensible Cockney-accented dialogue. It’s about a British prison parolee who comes to the United States to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter.

***

Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies

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