Jungle love

Ben Kingsley in <i>Sexy Beast</i>: Have scenery, will chew.

Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast: Have scenery, will chew.

Rated 2.0

Sexy Beast is a criminal affair to be remembered more for its intoxicating visual vigor and one blowtorch performance than for its character arcs, caper thrills or revelatory surprises. Director Jonathan Glazer has galvanized the British crime story that Guy Ritchie (Snatch) recently bludgeoned nearly to death, but in turn brings more icing than cake to the party. He has turned the profane, volcanic courtship of a retired career criminal and a former associate—all for one proverbial last heist—into a vacuous neon-noir nightmare.

Glazer uses his commercial savvy (award-winning Guinness ads) and music video chops (Radiohead, Massive Attack, Jamiroquai) to gnaw subversively at the gangster genre. He saturates the film with electric Miami Vice colors, fantasy (a tall Planet of the Rabbits-like creature makes several appearances) and adrenal rock (including the Stranglers’ “Peaches”). He certainly has an eye for luscious and stunning images, but all that flash and sheen merely camouflages rather than overcomes several weaknesses in Louis Mellis and David Scinto’s script.

Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) has left “gray, grimy, sooty” England for the tan-friendly Costa del Sol of Spain. He shares his hillside villa with wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), goofs off poolside with a local houseboy (Alvaro Monje) and fires up the barbie to feed neighboring crony Aitch (Cavan Kendall, a sort of East End Jerry Orbach) and his wife Jackie (Julianne White).

Living is easy for these Cockney Sopranos-like couples, until a phone call arrives from thug Don Logan (Ben Kingsley). The message severely darkens a night on the town for our quartet. When Logan arrives we immediately discover why. Logan is a crass, expletive-spewing, corrosive manipulator who wants Gal to return to England for a bank robbery and will not take “no” for an answer. A battle of wills and a subsequent heist ensue. Both are deeply flawed.

Gal and Aitch have criminal backgrounds that are kept vague except for the mention of Gal’s nine-year imprisonment. These guys are not reformed, they are just retired. The reason HBO’s Tony Soprano is so beguiling is that we are privy to the details and contractions in his life. Here none exist. When Logan begins his bullying and cajoling, I found no reason to invest in either characters or situations. Crooks badgering crooks is just as inherently interesting in a film as preachers preaching to the choir. There’s no dramatic hook.

The film does establish a credible love between Gal and Deedee. But this bit of humanism amongst all the muck is blunted by a continuing stream of sensationalism and Gal’s lack of action as Logan runs amok. Deedee’s porno star past surfaces (her 16mm films are legendary, according to motor-mouth Logan). Jackie’s stint as orgy participant is shown in a flashback. Logan brags of Jackie once using a strategically placed finger to make him nearly jump through the ceiling during sex and his London crime boss (Ian McShane) has an ambiguous sexual tryst with a wealthy banker (James Fox).

Then there’s the heist itself. Logan has ranted about the robbery being a sort of Thomas Crown swindle that requires Gal’s sole expertise. The robbery turns out to be a vividly photographed but rather mundane event that involves more digging, hauling and swimming than any unique, finely honed criminal skill.

Winstone (Nil by Mouth, The War Zone) is excellent as the ex-con who wears a tight mustard-yellow swimsuit and cools his testicles with ice while sunbathing. The supporting cast is also commendable, but it’s Kingsley as Geek Reaper who chews up the scenery. Bald and with starchy posture, he snips at questions like a teething puppy, flings himself into rabid tirades and tantrums, urinates on Gal’s carpet and generally reeks of decadence. He takes on such strong animal characteristics that I expected him to begin licking his own balls before the final credits rolled. When he attacks Gal in bed and spits: “I won’t let you be happy,” I believed him. But I didn’t feel compelled to stick around and see it happen.