By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:58 AM EDT

In Sexy Beast, Kingsley plays Don Logan, a London gangster with a shaved head, a goatee, a thick as Guinness East End accent, and a way of establishing his will and command as the only relevant issue in the room. Logan, as fit and lean as a middle aged Marine, with tattoos and beady dead eyes, shows up at the sun drenched Spanish villa of Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), a midlevel gangster who used to do jobs for him. Gal, his thickened torso baking in the Mediterranean sun, has lazified himself into a state of hog heaven retirement. He sits all day around his beloved swimming pool, tanned and doughy, with a thick gold neck chain and sly, sozzled eyes — a Limey out of water. He’s like a guy in a lite beer commercial, sharing the good life with his doting ex-porn star wife (Amanda Redman), his ex-gangster buddy (Cavan Kendall), and the buddy’s moll (Julianne White). Don, however, has other ideas. After a break of nine years, he has come to force Gal to perform one last job.

Kingsley plays Don with the homicidal stare and percussive, poke you in the chest vocal rhythms of a psycho CEO. He shouts, he growls, he pees on the floor, he repeats words back with icy menace to whomever he’s talking to. He won’t let Gal off the hook; getting him to knuckle under is more important than getting him to do the job. Logan is an animal, all right, yet Kingsley’s trump card remains his intelligence — a mental charisma of nimble and imposing force. Don sits on his rage, cultivates it, even talks to it in the bathroom mirror, then spews it like lava from a garden hose. His battle of wills with Gal is a power showdown that segues into a war between Gal and his own criminal past — the ”sexy beast” Gal was naive enough to think he could lay down with and then abandon.

The director, Jonathan Glazer, is a music video veteran who works with all the classicism and flair that Guy Ritchie (”Snatch”), with his hiccupy Ritalin jump cut style, can only dream about. The opening scene, in which a giant boulder crashes into Gal’s swimming pool, hits a note of ominous absurdity, but once the picture settles down, it proceeds with a precise, moment to moment understanding of the karmic nature of criminal society, and of crime’s possibilities as well. Returning to London, Don, in a terrific scene, gets kicked off a plane after refusing to extinguish his cigarette (he does offer to snuff it out in someone’s eyeball), and though it looks like a spontaneous incident, it’s also clear that this is a man who allows for no accidents. ”Sexy Beast” keeps shooting off onto tangents (the background of Gal’s marriage; James Fox as a posh banker at an orgy), and we’re seized by each one of them. The film carries so much impacted menace and visual narrative gamesmanship that it brought back some of the excitement I felt nearly a decade ago watching Quentin Tarantino’s ”Reservoir Dogs.”

Don, speaking in flashback, provides a peek into the job at hand, the penetration of a safe deposit fortress in central London. Are we watching just another glorified heist thriller? When the scheme is finally unveiled, we’re placed, along with Gal, in a kind of underwater purgatory, with any last residue of criminal glamour scraped away. This job, it turns out, is Gal’s penance, the ultimate mortgage payment on his life of leisure.

As Gal, Ray Winstone has the quietly ticking suspicion and blurting fits of revolt of a cockney James Gandolfini. The old gangster ire is still there in him, just under the surface, but Winstone also lets you see the fear that most gangster movies gloss over. ”Sexy Beast” never pretends to be more than a crackerjack genre piece, yet the film presents an authentic and merciless vision of the underworld. It introduces a third major character — Ian McShane as Teddy, a soft spoken mobster who flashes a smile so rotten with insinuation that it eats its way right through Gal’s lies. Teddy is the new face of the ”Sexy Beast,” and by the end, we realize that crime may pay, but those who make their pact with the BadFellas pay more.

Sexy Beast

  • Movie
  • R
  • 88 minutes
  • Jonathan Glazer