Cult Movie: Sexy Beast still a sizzling cut above other Brit gangster flicks of the 90s and 00s
LAST week I was singing the praises of Richard Burton's early-70s gangster epic Villain, placing that gritty little slice of cinematic nastiness right up there with the very best the genre has had to offer – Get Carter included.
However, if you really want to taste the glory period of the British gangster film in its tangiest and most commercially successful era, you need to fast forward a few decades to the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thanks mainly to the money-spinning movies of Guy Ritchie like Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, British cinema was awash with wide boy swagger and laddish louts throwing their weight about while adjusting their Saville Row suits just like Burton in Villain.
Watched today, Ritchie's movies feel like what they really are,:the product of a rich kid playing in a working class world. For all the flashy visuals and quotable one liners, he appears flip and clueless about the real horror of the gangland brutality he so gleefully splashes all over our cinema screens
It's a rare gangster fable from that period that remains worthy of our attention today. One of those films is Jonathan Glazer's remarkable Sexy Beast. Where most Brit gangster flicks of that time were all about the surface noise and the garish trimmings of the criminal life, Glazer's film feels like the exact opposite.
From the off, we meet Ray Winstone as retired career criminal Gary, baking his beer belly on the courtyard of his continental hideaway. Suddenly, a huge boulder crashes into his swimming pool without warning, and we know this is going to be something different.
Superficially, it's on familiar turf: Gary is living a quiet life on the Costa Del Crime before he gets an unwelcome visitor from his dodgy past calling at his door with an offer for "one last job", but it's how Glazer deals with those clichés that really sets his work apart from the suited and booted also-rans of the era.
The hood who comes to 'convince' Gary that a return to his old ways would be "advisable" is Don, on paper a standard enough old lag of a character. On screen though, Don, as played by Sir Ben Kingsley, is a terrifying ball of unspooling rage who leaves you transfixed for every second he fills the screen. Trust me, it's a performance of such untrammelled wildness and unhinged psychosis you'll never be able to watch Ghandi in quite the same way again.
In comparison to the devil that is Don, Winstone's turn as the retired crook forced back into action against his will is almost understated. Glazer plays on the conflict between the two men as the inevitable climax approaches with real class though, and by the end you feel properly wrung out by the deep tension that's been developed throughout.
Released in 2000 and out on Blu-ray this month through Spirit Entertainement, this was Glazer's directorial debut. Stranger material was to come later, like the utterly bizarre Under The Sun, but Sexy Beast remains a remarkable calling card.