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September 14, 2000 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: Genre-Bending "Sexy Beast," Smug, with Strong Perfs

TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: Genre-Bending "Sexy Beast," Smug, with Strong Perfs

by Eddie Cockrell




(indieWIRE/ 9.14.00) -- Perched on a sun-baked hillside in the Costa del Sol section of Spain, retired Cockney gangster Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone) enjoys the
quiet. Suddenly, a massive boulder thunders towards him, bounces over
his head and into the pool of the villa he shares with his ex-pornstar
wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). This early sequence of Jonathan Glazer's
"Sexy Beast," at once visually dazzling and defiantly jokey (it's scored
to the Stranglers' 1977 song "Peaches") sets the stage for what emerges
as a love-it-or-hate-it genre exercise showcasing two terrific
performances, a fertile but often smugly self-conscious directorial
sensibility ("neon noir," Glazer calls it) and a resolutely
unconventional approach to the familiar tenets of the British crime
film.


Only a few other people share Gal and Deedee's world, principally among
them neighbors Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White), as
well as the Spanish houseboy Enrique (Alvaro Monje). Soon enough, the
past makes a violent intrusion in the form of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley),
a former associate now determined to enlist Gal as part of a team set to
perform a daring bank heist masterminded by arch-villain Teddy Bass (Ian
McShane
) and smooth financier
Harry (James Fox).


Problem is, Logan -- of whom the quartet is clearly terrified -- turns
out to be a vicious, raging psychopath who berates and belittles each
person in turn until, abruptly, Gal shows up in London to do the job.
Yet, after being thrown off his own plane for refusing to put out a
cigarette, Logan's gone missing and Teddy suspects Gal of knowing more
than he lets on.


Although not many of them make it stateside, the British cinema is
currently awash in gangster movies, many of them centered around the
violent Cockney underworld. For the genre fan, the linkages here are
obvious, most noticeably to Stephen Frears' "The Hit" (produced, as was
"Sexy Beast," by Jeremy Thomas) and HBO's New Jersey-set "The Sopranos" (the criminals in repose angle) but also strongly reminiscent of "Get
Carter
," "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels" and an obscure Albert
Finney
film called "Loophole" that features the same kind of underwater
bank robbery. Yet what might not come across so clearly to moviegoers
unfamiliar with British culture is the immediately identifiable world in
which the film travels. There apparently is a rich tradition of
prominent underworld figures retiring to Spain, so much so that the
region has been dubbed "Costa del Crime" by some media wags.


So, too, the thick Cockney accent places these characters, while at the
same time impeding the film's progress for those not tuned in to its
cadences and slang: Winstone comes by his naturally, while Kingsley,
with his Shakespearean training, has affected the accent with much more
precise pronunciation. Though crude to the American ear, the word
"cunt," uttered continuously through the film, is sort of a catch-all
expression that can mean friend, enemy, insult, whatever the situation
demands.


Winstone, seen recently in Gary Oldman's "Nil By Mouth" and Tim Roth's "The War Zone," among other films, brings a romanticism and affability
to Dove that's a fresh change of pace for the actor (no slight to either
man, but it's a performance very much in the spirit of James
Gandolfini
's Tony Soprano). McShane's Teddy reeks with cold-blooded
menace, and popular British television actress Amanda Redman brings
authority to the pivotal role of Deedee.


But it is Kingsley who dominates the film, with an audacious and
completely mad reading of the demonic Logan, a character mixing the
social graces of a geek with the impulses of a psychotic into a raging
stew of violence and anger. Perhaps sensing the challenges of enduring
him for the entire movie's relatively brief 88 minutes, screenwriters
Louis Mellis and David Scinto don't introduce Logan for around 20
minutes, with the plot dictating his absence for perhaps the last third
of the picture.


With "Sexy Beast," commercial and promo director Jonathan Glazer (who
won a British Television Ad of the Year award for his Guinness
commercial "Ultimate Wave" and has directed music videos for Massive
Attack
, Radiohead and Jamiroquai) looks at the now-ubiquitous ironic
approach with a genuinely fresh eye. There's often a spacy, non-linear
approach to pace and rhythm, creating a palpable sense of
unpredictability that meshes nicely with the erratic tempers of these
ruthless characters.


Perhaps inevitably, the story is eclipsed by this aggressively
self-promoting style, with an ending as weak as it is obvious and that
thick and impenetrable Cockney-accented slang, which spells trouble for
the American market. But for a few brief moments, an otherwise tepid
Toronto slate was injected with a jolt of genre mischief both refreshing
and fleeting.


[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering the Toronto
International Film Festival for Variety and nitrateonline.com.]

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