Sexy Beast: My favourite British gangster movie

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking ”Why would you pick that one? You’ve got Get Carter, The Long Good Friday, Villain, Layer Cake, Mona Lisa, Lock, Stock and Snatch! It’s not even set in the bloody UK, you’re disrespecting the classics!”. And trust me, I absolutely adore all of those titles and can empathise with your frustrations. However, as brilliant as all of them assuredly are, there is essentially no other crime film that can usurp the fever pitch I reach whenever I see Sexy Beast. With its uniformly fantastic performances, exciting soundtrack, gorgeous visuals and note-perfect, idiosyncratic blend of black comedy, thriller and deeply touching relationship drama, Jonathan Glazer’s directorial debut remains one of the last great organised crime pictures to come out of Great Britain and a hypnotically satisfying experience every time I revisit it.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, our main man is Gary ‘Gal’ Dove (Ray Winstone), a retired career criminal who once made his living as a safecracker for a formidable London crime syndicate. Having used his spoils to relocate to rural Spain, Gal lives a life of ceaseless bliss with his wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman), a former adult actress, in a lovely coastal villa where they can lazily swim under the infinite baking sun and enjoy get-togethers with their best friends and fellow ex-pat couple Aitch & Jackie (Cavan Kendall and Julianne White). Gal lost 9 years of his life to a custodial sentence for his light-fingered shenanigans, a key motivator in his desire to live out the rest of his days serenely enjoying the finer things in life with the woman he worships by his side, a world away from any lick of trouble.

One morning, as he is roasting on a sunbed with understandable smugness, Gal narrowly avoids death in the form of a gigantic boulder that comes tumbling down the hills surrounding his abode, crashing into his swimming pool and demolishing the double-heart design tiling at the base. Rattled yet soon forgetting the matter, Gal persists in his leisurely routine until the following night when he and Deedee meet up with Aitch and Jackie for a meal at their favourite restaurant. The latter couple bring a tense and sullen atmosphere into the establishment, Jackie eventually spilling the beans that she and Aitch received a phone call from London. Quickly deducing that his old outfit wants him back in the fold for another heist, Gal states that it’s a no-go and wonders why the two of them would get into such a surly state over an open-and-shut issue. Jackie replies that the voice on the other end belonged to Don Logan.

These three syllables transform a pleasant and straightforward evening into a psychological maelstrom. Logan (Ben Kinglsey) is a key figure within Gal’s former criminal fraternity, an extremely aggressive, vindictive and bilious sociopath whose propensity for violence is frighteningly unpredictable. Don is far too dangerous to say no to, leading to Gal frantically thinking of ways to appease Don before he does some ungodly thing to spite Gal back in Blighty, only to be informed that the nutcase will be landing in Spain the next morning to pitch to Gal in person. The lethal boulder in the film’s opening doesn’t seem half as bad at this point.

Don touches down on Andalucian soil with quintessential vileness, offering a laconic, abrupt and expletive-ridden interpersonal exchange to Gal and friends before sitting our hero down to bend his ear over the reason for his presence: Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), the omnipotent crime lord of a virtually satanic bent who once put food on Gal’s table, is planning to rob a hi-tech safety deposit company and requires an eight-man team for the gruelling mission. Don wants Gal on board and immediately enters into a struggle to retain his temper when the latter states that he’s retired and isn’t up for it. What follows is a subtly nerve-wracking battle of wills as Don subjects Gal to an onslaught of physical and emotional abuse, partially to break him into agreement but also to project his destructive bitterness over the happy existence of Gal & co.

So, where to start with Sexy Beast? It’s nothing short of remarkable that Glazer would deliver such a solid first-time feature, as even the greatest debuts often require some tweaking as the creator is still finding their footing, which is only natural. He strongly benefits from a history as an esteemed director of advertisements and music videos, commuting a striking visual style and shrewd musical placement that underpins the film’s comprehensive tonal pattern.

The dark eccentricity of the piece is beckoned in the film’s opening as Gal is almost mince-meated by the boulder to the tune of The Stranglers’ Peaches, the controversially lecherous new wave classic with an upbeat irreverence that reflects Gal’s reposed, no-worries lifestyle. Henry Mancini’s beautiful and jazzy chill-out instrumental Lujon functions as the romantic theme for Gal and DeeDee, his queen for whom he demonstrates fiercely sincere love and loyalty, as well as representing the overall apex of satisfaction that Gal feels. UK electro outfits UNKLE and South collaborate to craft a bass-and-percussion-heavy soundscape that fortifies the daunting power of Don and the boys back home. The soundtrack as a whole imbues the movie with an addictively punchy mystique.

Every single player is on committed top form in this one, Winstone notably deviating from his territorial hard-nut malice to authentically play a rough diamond. Gal is a dyed-in-the-wool East Londoner who took his fair share of knocks in a brutal mobster milieu, but he possesses a sweetness and empathy that leave no illusion as to why he desperately wanted to escape the violent indifference of his erstwhile cohorts. It was always about an easy life for Gal as opposed to a need for respect-cum-fear, he’s done his time and now desires nothing more than a happy twilight. Winstone, Redman, Kendall and White constitute a believable quartet of good-natured folks who have all been around the block and managed to escape to their dream life, the former two instilling Gal & DeeDee with a flesh-and-blood tenderness that is bolstered by Gal being unable to care less about her past in blue movies.

The film’s centrepiece, as UK media buzzed about upon initial release, is Kingsley’s game-changing turn as Don Logan. Most famous up until that point for his portrayal of internationally-renowned pacifist revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi, Kingsley operates in diametric opposition to that character’s softly-spoken formality and gentle grace as ‘The Unhappiest Man In The World’, to quote the actor directly.

Equal parts amusing and highly disturbing, Don makes the audience flinch with his lack of doing so, sitting still and upright, steely-eyed and muscles taut with trip-wire anger. He needlessly insults Gal before his demands have even been rejected, yet acts supremely offended that our hero doesn’t wish to work with him. Emotionally sadistic and likely to punch or glass you for a slight that only exists in his head, Don prefers calculating silence over verbosity, lending a credible air to the edge-of-their-seat atmosphere in which Gal & friends find themselves. He supplements his coarse diatribes with dryly amusing verbal constructions such as ‘insinuendo’ and fine-drawn physical tics, compounding the viewer’s discomfort as they naturally snicker at Don’s often-peculiar mannerisms before he adroitly switches into full-on nastiness. Gandhi was a fabulous performance, but I’ll always remember Sir Ben for this expert antithesis.

It would also be remiss not to mention the other focally important face in these proceedings, that being the diabolical marionettist kingpin Teddy Bass. Marking Ian McShane’s first film appearance since the mid-1980s when he was still most iconic for portraying Lovejoy, his cold gaze and smoky growl suffuse Bass with an aura of understated malevolence that ultimately manages to out-scary Mr Logan. An obscenely wealthy man with preternatural levels of omniscience, Teddy (or Mr Black Magic, as Don refers to him at one point) is the man who icily controls the bald attack dog, calmly and patiently blueprinting his plot to rip off pompous safety deposits president Harry (James Fox). Gal, who is already intimidated enough by Don’s presence, hushes in anxiety at the mere mention of Teddy’s name. Ultimately a more secure entity than Don, Teddy never raises his voice and finds it easier to break into a smile, though they’re both men that you’d attempt to burrow into Hell to get away from should they show up at your door.

I could probably waffle on about this film for at least a couple more pages but, suffice to say, it is a picture that you must check out if you’ve yet to see it. Scary, funny and counterintuitively very sweet, Sexy Beast is insanely snappy in a visual and sonic sense, each scene being a perfectly succinct slice of deliciously coloured brilliance. It handles its central villain’s dark psychological baggage with panache and deftly humanises its flawed hero, with a touching romantic quotient that is immersive even with tiny dollops of sentimentalism. It’s just f***ing amazing, so tell me you’ll hunt it down, or else.

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