If his portrayal of a certain pacifist Indian revolutionary hadn’t already made Ben Kingsley’s acting career, his role in the new British caper film “Sexy Beast” most certainly would. Kingsley’s performance as ultimate gangster Don Logan is as shocking as it is profane. While Kingsley’s Logan may share the same shaven cranium as Ghandi, the two are polar opposites, giving the Oscar-winning actor a chance to prove he’s got the chops to play sinner as well as saint.
You know you’re in for something delightfully different from the movie’s opening shot: Sweaty, drowsy and flirting with an all-over third-degree burn, ex-crook Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) is baking himself by a Costa del Sol pool, the embodiment of what happens when a hard-boiled character goes soft. We watch as suddenly a VW-sized boulder comes crashing down the hillside behind him, launches itself toward the unsuspecting Gal, missing his head by mere inches.
Sure, it’s foreshadowing, but like everything else in this feature debut by hot video/commercial director Jonathan Glazer, it’s foreshadowing pushed to the outer limits of extreme. Like a calling card from hell, the boulder presages the arrival of Logan, a smaller but nonetheless lethally misguided missile. In short order, Logan urinates on Gal’s rug, barks out the “F-word” at the speed of light and makes life unpleasant for everyone. Gal knows immediately that just like his afternoon nap, his cushy retirement is about to end.
Ostensibly looking like a throwback to such classic Jules Dassin’s “heist” films as “Topkapi” or “Rififi,” “Sexy Beast” devotes only a fraction of its running time to the commission of an actual crime. Instead, what we witness is the feral byplay between Gal and Don, who once may have been aligned on the same side — but never willingly. Gal is sort of a British Tony Soprano, a crook who’d just as soon stay out of trouble, living the good life with his ex-porn-star wife (Amanda Redman). He’s less than receptive to Logan’s request: Get back into the game for one last score, an underwater heist masterminded by mob boss Teddy (Ian McShane) and his accountant (James Fox). Torn between risking the enmity of Logan or risking a return to prison, Gal finally gives in.
While the screenplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto doesn’t always hold water, Glazer’s direction is so flashy and amusing it hardly matters. Add to that the knockout performances by both Kingsley and Winstone, and you’ve got a deliciously perverse 90 minutes in the dark. The usually bleak Winstone, who most recently appeared in two of the grimmest movies — Gary Oldman’s “Nil by Mouth” and Tim Roth’s “The War Zone” — here is charmingly cast against type. As Gal, the veteran British character actor delivers a strong portrait of man desperate to hold onto the good life, though not really sure he’s got the cajones to manage it.
As Logan, Kingsley is nothing short of amazing. The stately, well-voiced actor sheds his saintly persona here with gusto. Like a pit bull, Kingsley tears into Logan’s psyche, crafting a character so breathtakingly dangerous the thought of his Mahatma years will be banished forever. Vulgar, abrupt and likely to explode without reason, Kingsley’s Logan steals the show. Incredibly, he only appears in the middle hour of this taut thriller.
As penned by Mellis and Scinto, the “heist” is both clever and smartly orchestrated. But it can’t help but be anticlimactic. The real suspense in “Sexy Beast” comes from Gal and Logan’s stare-downs, which couldn’t be more disturbing or intense. As the tension escalates at every turn, we sit and wait for their ultimate confrontation. And Glazer doesn’t disappoint, dishing up what has to be one of the year’s most gruesome showdowns. With style to burn and an insistent violent verve, Glazer and Kingsley make “Sexy Beast” a beauty.