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Ben Kingsley roars in "Sexy Beast."

King of Beast 

Ben Kingsley's masterful performance reigns over Sexy Beast

Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) loves his swimming pool. When the droll British crime comedy Sexy Beast opens, Gal is splayed out in the Spanish sun next to his pool, a couple of beer bottles nearby. He's thinking about how infernally hot the sun is, as people do when they endure its discomfort in search of the perfect tan. Pudgy, blond, with a pleasant, unlined face, Guy is clearly one of the lucky ones: a lower-class London criminal who made his wad and then escaped to a sun-baked retirement at his own villa on the coast of Spain. What could spoil his picture? Well, a boulder for one thing. When Ray stands up, an awesomely gigantic rock comes bouncing down the mountain, arcs over his head and hits with a huge splash, narrowly sparing his life as it divides the waters of his beloved pool.

As an introduction to the offbeat comic terrors of Sexy Beast, this credit sequence opening is pretty much perfect, since it combines languor, surprise, mystery and an unmistakable dash of absurdism. Has someone aimed the boulder at Gal? Viewers must immediately wonder. But no, apparently not. This is not where the film is taking us, we soon see. The boulder simply happened, as things do. If anything, it was an odd premonition. The real boulder about to crash into the boozy calm of Gal's life, with devastating effect, is not granite but human. Its name is Don Logan, and his violent trajectory is not to be stopped by anything as comfortable as a swimming pool.

Before saying more about Don, let us appreciate the elegant economy with which director Jonathan Glazer prepares his entrance. Though Sexy Beast is a relatively small-scaled British production, it has a plush widescreen look--Glazer acquired his expensive visual manner, it seems, in making TV commercials and videos for Radiohead--which suits the story's setting and Gal's lazy, monied existence. The great, empty, blindingly bright vistas of the Spanish coast, as well as those of Gal's well-kept hacienda, are aptly rendered by the tastefully sumptuous photography, which gives us Gal's life in a way that he no doubt imagines it: as a travel brochure's vision of the good life, a beckoning, sun-splashed ideal to anyone unlucky enough to be stuck in poverty or gray, dank England.

Gal has escaped both, and that is really all we need to know. Glazer tells us nothing about the guy's past, criminal or otherwise; we are meant to deduce its punishing sleaze from the way Gal dearly loves his pool and his beer, and the way his oily, unschooled accent wraps around a word like "calamari." The other significant details Glazer adds take the form of three people who share Gal's Spanish idyll: his ex-porn star wife (Amanda Redman), another, equally oily underworld retiree (Cavan Kendall) and his dame (Julianne White). They are a fine bunch, this déclassé but expensively groomed foursome. One gets the feeling they really treasure a life utterly lacking in excitement.

Its disruption is announced by a phone call. Gal is wanted back in England for a major heist, and he needn't relay his regrets over the phone; an emissary is being sent to secure his participation. When Gal's foursome hears Don Logan's name, their mouths tighten and their immaculate tans seem to grow suddenly paler. No wonder. When he shows up on their doorstep--or rather, at poolside--Logan proves to be something more than a sinister mob enforcer. He is more like a razor-toothed Doberman in human form.

Logan is played by Ben Kingsley, and the match of role and actor gives Sexy Beast an enormous reservoir of gravity and menace; their combination is the huge, life-imperiling boulder against which the movie's chlorinated waves lap. Kingsley plays the part with a shaved head, which lets us see the veins bulging in his brow, and a goatee, which hides his mouth's vulnerability while accenting the chin's aggression. Somehow, in his repertoire of skills, the actor also comes up with a way of giving the impression that all of his muscles are made of steel, and that he could easily rip your chest cavity open or tear your head off without greatly exerting himself. His eyes are like ego-piercing lasers; he seems to be able to smell weakness and dissimulation. And he very much wants Gal in London for that heist.

In certain obvious ways, Logan resembles the character Robert De Niro played in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, or Joe Pesci's character in GoodFellas. He is all terrifying id, a calculating psycho whose capacities for wreaking mortal havoc seem almost supernatural. Glazer, therefore, deserves points for not making him at all otherworldly or overtly mythic.

Nor does the filmmaker demonstrate the gangster's lethal potential in the bloody ways that now seem almost de rigueur in crime films. Logan doesn't eviscerate Gal's Spanish pool boy, for example. He never pulls out a cannon and splatters the scenery with brains and guts. He simply raises his voice, brings his victim into the crosshairs of his steely gaze, tenses his muscles, and lets loose a billowing torrent of expletive-laced threats and innuendo. Other films might actually need Uzis blazing and limbs shattering to convey the same level of danger. Kingsley does it all with his actorly instrument, his voice and physique.

It is something to behold, this performance. It's the kind of work that looks like an instant Oscar nomination, even if the film containing it is the sort of oddball import that otherwise wouldn't make it onto Hollywood's radar. In fact, the film feels rather slight and minor compared to the performance that is its dramatic tentpole. But that's a roundabout way of paying a compliment: There's a kind of shrewd minimalism to the way Glazer surrounds Kingsley with just enough stuff--characters, information, story--to support his work, but not enough to distract us from its power or prominence.

A good film centered on a great performance rather than a great film per se, Sexy Beast joins a venerable genre that has undergone something of a resuscitation of late. The British crime film of course harkens back to Hitchcock and the 1920s; its modernist phase, starting in the '60s, produced some true cinematic gems including a couple of favorites of mine: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's Performance (whose co-star, James Fox, has a small role in Sexy Beast, perhaps as a form of homage) and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday. More recent entries have, not too surprisingly, evidenced certain notable influences from abroad, especially one that I once dubbed, "the Tarantino effect."

You can see the most flagrant and baneful examples of Pulp Fiction's impact in recent Brit caper films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, by the talentless Guy Ritchie. Here, only the crudest and most banal of Quentin Tarantino's innovations receive the flattery of imitation: It's all blood, mayhem, obscenity and showy masochism. Sexy Beast is far more subtle, indeed subtle enough that most viewers probably won't think of Tarantino while watching it. But his influence is there, I think, in the film's juxtaposition of terror and laughs.

Gal and his crowd are funny, to be sure. Their wary indolence and gangster-bourgeois stolidity make us smile, as does their creeping dread at the approach of Don Logan and all he represents. Their fear, which may be the funniest thing about them, brings to mind several key moments in Pulp Fiction--the moments after the guns come out and just before they explode. One question always posed by Tarantino was, what if the guns didn't explode? He wrote comedies of manners, after all. Did they really need the heavy carnage?

Sexy Beast suggests an encouraging answer to such questions. Its comedy of fear and loathing is accomplished without a regular or extreme reliance on violence. Don Logan and the horrors he represents are left largely to our imaginations, as they are to the imaginations of Gal and his pals. As a result, the film is focused less on mechanics and easy-to-manufacture shocks than on the subtleties of character, behavior and perception, and the gut-level force of a performance like Kingley's. If this strategic restraint is British, let's have more of it. EndBlock

  • Ben Kingsley roars in "Sexy Beast."

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