*Sexy Beast (R)
20th Century Fox
Sexy Beast tells a story that's been around in film at least as long as Humphrey Bogart: A successful criminal decides to retire from a life of crime, but just as he's getting used to a cozy suburbanesque lifestyle, his old crime boss comes pounding on the door demanding one more score. Typically, the guy squirms as briefly as possible before giving in so the movie can surge forward to the climatic heist (see the current The Score -- or rather, don't see it).
Sexy Beast begins pretty much like all these other films, but, thankfully, cares more about the squirming than the heist. In fact, the story here is the squirming, because the folks behind this British import (first-time director Jonathan Glazer and first-time writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto) understand that lifelike, complicated characters are always more thrilling than idiotic Hollywood stick figures and carbon copy plots.
Gary Dove (Ray Winstone of Nil By Mouth) and DeeDee (Amanda Redman from Britain's Hope and Glory TV series) are young retirees -- he from high-stakes crime, she from porno films. After successful careers (for lack of a better term) in London, they've settled in Spain. They have good friends, a little cash and enough sense to appreciate their surroundings. The movie opens with a wonderful shot of Dove relaxing by his pool, speaking softly to himself and relishing in the good life. He's plump, sunburned and not planning on going anywhere.
But Dove soon learns that his old boss, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), needs him to do another job, and his severe tranquility is immediately replaced with severe tension. Logan is flying to Spain tomorrow, Dove's friend tells him, and as Dove well knows, Logan won't take no for an answer. The assignment comes straight from Logan's superior, and Logan will surely pursue his duty like the well-trained soldier he is.
Logan is as menacing and hard a criminal as we've seen in the movies in recent years. Even if you already think Ben Kingsley is a fine actor, the moment Don Logan enters the film will stagger you. Kingsley performs with ferocious perfection, completely dwarfing any memories we have of Gandhi and Itzhak Stern (the accountant in Schindler's List).
Logan's menace only increases as Dove keeps saying that he will not do the job. Dove's resistance is not exactly tough -- it's a nervous, throat-clearing, foot-shuffling, humble attempt to respectfully decline Logan's offer. For much of the movie, Logan rages and threatens, demanding submission, only to hear Dove squeak out another no. The back and forth plays brilliantly and, inevitably, brutally. Dove finally has to go through with the heist, but not for the reasons you'd expect.
It's tempting to complain that the film should not have shown the heist at all. As the crime begins, it seems a mere afterthought. But it's magnificently shot -- the crooks break into a bank through a Turkish bath that they neglect to drain first, and when the vaults break open the loot swims around them hauntingly. And the heist leads to a prologue of sorts that gives the movie a marvelous and satisfying close.
Though it's not immediately clear what the title has to do with the film, when it's over you'll realize this is a movie about different types of beasts, about attractiveness, about being lured -- both willingly and unwillingly -- by things that scare you and thrill you all at once. Glazer has delivered a stunning debut film, at turns funny, vicious, shocking and unassumingly philosophical.