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'Sexy Beast': Gandhi Goes Gangsta

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2001


    'Sexy Beast' Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone star in "Sexy Beast." (Film Four)
"Sexy Beast," the new British gangster picture with an astonishing performance by Ben Kingsley, has been getting great reviews. Allow me to impose a brief reality check: It may be almost not bad, if you can understand it, which I couldn't. You're not in the America-friendly Britain of "Masterpiece Theatre," where all language is spoken with the high diction of the quip-rich, irony-fueled, wit-honed inflections perfectly tweaked upward at the end of each elegant sentence.

No, no: You're in Monstercreep Theater, where the lingua franca is lower-class Brit crimeslang, a patois eroded by inbreeding, grotesque profanity, macho posturing, traditions unsensed by American ears and terminology impenetrable without a glossary and a pint of stout. I will not pretend to some movie-critic superiority at decoding this stuff, and instead I confess I only got about 30 percent of what was said. Others were laughing, or should that be "larffing"? What I heard was mostly: "Ey, mite, 'e's ril expletivin' pee-d choo, blowke." I think that could be translated as, "Say friend, he's really expletiving annoyed at you." But as it was mostly glottal expulsions from diaphragms encrusted with nicotine, I could be wrong.

You will also be surprised to learn, as was I, that the great Kingsley is not the star of the film and not even in it that long. His performance is more of a gag cameo than anything else. He plays a monstrous thug named Don Logan, who flies to Spain to persuade a retired gang boy, Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), to fly back to Blighty to assist a bigger gangster yet, Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), in pulling off a complex caper.

So the hero is Winstone's Gal, a sensualist retired to the Spanish countryside with enough loot to live in the sun by the pool and his ex-porn star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman). It's the good life; they're happy, still sexually attracted to each other, and their best pals Aitch (which I take to be Cockney rhyming slang for somebody whose name begins with an H; the part is played by Cavan Kendall) and his wife, Jackie (Julianne White) are there to dine with them each night at the barbie.

Right away you see the problem. The hero is the least interesting man in the film. He's lost whatever criminal edge he once had, and now he's basically a timid, repressed fellow, who will obey the strongest will imposed against him. Our attentions and our sympathies fly instantly to the stronger presences, which belong to Kingsley, McShane and finally Redman, in that order.

When Don arrives, he's not, shall we say, the village vicar. He won't make you think of Gandhi, or any of those passionate performances that Kingsley is famous for, with his eyes brimful of empathy, his sensitivities attuned to every nuance and whisper of your being. Think of a blunt instrument construed as a man: That's Don. He knows how to win friends and influence people: Scream obscenities at them.

It's a kick, I admit, to see the distinguished Kingsley spewing invective like a rabid dog generating foam as it chews on your knee. Don just shouts and shouts and shouts, blasphemously, at everybody, including the flight attendants on the trip back to England, where his insistence on smoking gets him tossed into the clink, where he makes up his mind to have another shot at convincing Gal (who has said no to please his wife).

The movie then cuts abruptly to Gal's adventures in England, with Don mysteriously gone missing from the picture. There, the film becomes even vaguer than it has been, after having expended all its energy in selling us the explosive Don as a villain. You feel his absence so severely it's hard to care about what follows.

And what follows isn't a lot. In fact the whole caper is thinly imagined and itself dramatized mostly in flashback, with a voice-over by someone who isn't even in the movie. It seems to involve a raid on a bank vault, launched somewhat novelly from the swimming pool in the Turkish bath next door. It is intimated, though not made clear, that all this has been made possible because the tough gangster Teddy (McShane) has met and had a peculiar, possibly homosexual (the movie is vague) experience with the upper-class banker Harry (James Fox, who has the dissolute aristo thing nailed) at an orgy, where they seem to have either been inspired by or filming scenes from Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

Even the caper itself is preposterous – it doesn't involve any skill at all – and you wonder at the movie's pretext: Why was Gal so necessary to the job if the job only involved crude labor of digging and scraping? It's hardly the Thomas Crown affair.

After all this, the powerful Teddy begins to wonder whatever happened to Don, and Gal's guilty look is about as convincing as Letterman's chin-rubbing when he goes into one of his "I think it went something like this . . . " reveries. And thus we see what happened to Don via the dramatically inept device of the flashback, and it's brutal but predictable.

In the end, I'm wondering what's so special about a film that has but one guilty pleasure and that's Ben Kingsley spraying saliva-lubricated variants of the F-word into the atmosphere like anti-aircraft fire for 10 solid minutes. "Gandhi" would have been much livelier if they'd let him do that. And "Sexy Beast" would have been much livelier if they'd let it be about him.

"Sexy Beast" (88 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington 7) is rated R for extremely profane language that most Americans won't be able to understand anyway, plus a few seconds of gory violence.


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