Great actors are often defined by the subtlety of their range (Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert De Niro), but there’s a special breed of actor who expresses his greatness through a more extreme, even freakish duality: He delights in playing characters who are either very, very good or very, very bad. His range, while amazing, might more accurately be described as a kind of bipolar spirit, a personality that dances between the angelic and the demonic.
Ben Kingsley came to prominence flashing a Mona Lisa smile of eternal compassion as the saintly Mahatma Gandhi, and you could make out his halo in ”Schindler’s List” as well. Now, in the cleverly diabolical Sexy Beast, Kingsley adds a welcome megavolt of electricity to the summer season by playing one of the nastiest, crudest, most vicious specimens of vile sociopathic scum since Joe Pesci shot a bullet into Michael Imperioli’s foot for the jolly sadistic fun of it in ”GoodFellas.” ”Sexy Beast” is a British-indie underworld drama that puts Hollywood’s recent, inflated attempts at entertainment to shame, and it places Kingsley, after his svelte malevolence as Meyer Lansky in ”Bugsy” and the haunted middle-class torturer in ”Death and the Maiden,” at the top of the list of the great bipolar actors, right up there with Edward G. Robinson and Anthony Hopkins.
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.