Men behaving badly, but acting superbly
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
Early in "44 Inch Chest," a career thug named Archie (Tom Wilkinson) is asked by his dear old mum what's in the bowl he just served her. "Mulligatawny," he replies contentedly. "The king of soups."
That unsettling juxtaposition of criminality and cozy domesticity proves to be the driving force of the tawdry chamber piece that follows, when Archie is called to the aid of his colleague Colin (Ray Winstone), who has just discovered he's a cuckold. Fans of the 2000 thriller "Sexy Beast" may well feel like they're watching a sequel to that crisp, fervidly obscene little caper flick -- especially when "Sexy Beast" co-star Ian McShane shows up as Meredith ("44 Inch Chest" was indeed scripted by the previous film's screenwriters, Louis Mellis and David Scinto). Joined by Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) and Mal (Stephen Dillane), the group gathers in a dingy room in what looks like an abandoned warehouse to shore up Colin and aid and abet his recovery.
Of course in this case, recovery looks a lot like revenge. "44 Inch Chest" possesses much of "Sexy Beast's" fascination with stylized violence, operatic vulgarity, improbably erudite bad guys and the anthropological habits of men in groups. And, as with the earlier movie, it's sometimes difficult to discern whether the filmmakers are dissecting male bonding, ritualized aggression and sexual anxiety or celebrating it.
For the most part, "44 Inch Chest" transpires in one room, over the course of one night, and director Malcolm Venville makes the most of it as a set piece, allowing each of his fine actors a moment or two to deliver his own soaring solo of misogyny, self-pity and wounded pride. The endless talk, talk, talk grows tiresome, despite Venville's efforts to inject visual interest by way of clever staging and a digression into the plot of Cecil B. DeMille's "Samson and Delilah." And there's not much payoff in a film structured like a psychological thriller.
The best reason to see "44 Inch Chest" is simply to behold some of the finest actors working today, especially Winstone -- who can embody winsomeness and menace in one sweaty, unkempt glance -- and the woefully underemployed Dillane. As for McShane, he gets the film's most hilarious lines and delivers them with expert sang-froid. He is to arch depravity what mulligatawny is to soups.
Contains pervasive strong profanity, including sexual references, and some violence.