Maybe Quentin Tarantino doesn’t matter anymore. It seems that stylish crime thrillers have exceeded his achievements.
The Q may have revitalized the gangster film, but he’s currently sitting in a basement in the Valley, smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo. It’s fallen to other filmmakers to advance the genre, and the filmmakers most affected by Tarantino’s short, violent oeuvre have been from outside Hollywood.
Sexy Beast, the new criminal character study from British director Jonathan Glazer, has no more than tinges of Tarantino. Impressively sparse in its composition, compelling in its technical imagination and filled with interesting performances, Sexy Beast suffers only in its inability to outdistance the remarkable crop of unsentimental gangster films of the last half-decade. It’s another top-notch entry in the genre—it might even be the next big thing—but it’s not an island.
The film opens with an overhead shot of Gal Dove (Ray Winstone, so evil in Nil by Mouth), who’s baking his life away by the pool at his Spanish villa. Once the hardest of hard guys in the London underworld, Gal has retired with his ex-porn star wife and the pool boy. Moments later, out of nowhere, a boulder crashes down a hillside and lands on his pool, narrowly missing him.
A more dangerous projectile is still on its way. We soon learn that Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is coming for a visit, and everyone in the house immediately is anxiety-stricken, for Don is the kind of guy who makes you do things you don’t want to do. When he arrives, with a shaved head and an angry goatee, Don starts a mental duel with Gal, whose presence is required in London to make sure a scheme involving safe-deposit boxes and a robbery goes according to plan. And Don—fire in his eyes, venom spitting from his mouth—won’t take no for an answer.
Those with seats on the Guy Ritchie backlash bandwagon will tell you that Sexy Beast is superior to his films because of its emphasis on character development and nuance. What they’re really saying is that they couldn’t understand Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels until the second time they saw it. Glazer’s more meditative style suits his older characters and less eventful plot. They’re different films built for entirely different sensibilities, and holding Glazer’s serious hardcover up against Ritchie’s zingy paperback makes no sense. It’s rotten apples and blood oranges.
Two films that do deserve comparison to Sexy Beast are Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, which nearly flew underneath the cinematic radar when it was released, and Croupier, which played in limited release last year. Soderbergh created a more exciting spectacular artistic vision—a crime film as a jazz composition, complete with solos and riffs and a compelling plot. Croupier, while a less ambitious and exciting film than Sexy Beast, got a similarly evocative performance from Clive Owen as the inscrutable title character.
Still, all credit must go to Kingsley, whose heavily hyped performance deserves every bit of the hubbub. With his shaved head and gaunt figure, Kingsley will momentarily remind you of Gandhi—at least until he starts inventing variations of the word “fuck” that you may have never heard, even if you have Navy experience. With the proper actor, virtuosic and creative cursing can do more for a film’s charisma than any gunfight. Kingsley leaps into the challenge with teeth bared, and it’s thrilling to watch him pull it off.
Sexy Beast’s script has an unnecessary element of fantasy and dream sequences that damages the film’s middle third. It’s difficult to maintain that indelible hard edge when some goofy phantom is drifting in and out of Gal’s mind. But Glazer, whose roots are in commercials and music videos, keeps things moving briskly enough to minimize the dull spots. Glazer trusts his actors to keep the film moving, just as Tarantino did.
In a sparse 90 minutes, Sexy Beast shows that hard edge and tells a compelling story to audiences dying for sophisticated, smart entertainment like this. Glazer and his peers don’t need Tarantino to lead the way. The crime thriller is in bloody good hands.
Sexy Beast (R) HHH Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.