They Pull Me Back In

There’s no escaping Ben Kingsley in the riotously entertaining Sexy Beast; The Fast and the Furious runs out of gas.

Sexy Beast
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Fast and the Furious
Directed by Rob Cohen
Universal Pictures

The Cockney black comedy Sexy Beast is shot in the languorously stylized, half-parodic tone of a hip TV commercial, but it’s more than an assortment of fancy little tricks—it’s one giant wizardly trick, like an elephant pulled from a bowler hat. The movie is riotously entertaining, and with a big heart, too. The “sexy beast” of the title is the fleshy, sun-reddened Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), a former English hood who lives in Edenic retirement on the coast of Spain with his ex-porn-actress wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), and in close proximity to fellow limeys Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). A boulder that hurtles down the mountain into his pool anticipates the even ruder invasion of his former comrade in crime, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a wiry sociopath dedicated to bringing Gal back to gray old England for an epic caper. Committed to his wife and his happy, sunbaked, haute-bourgeois existence, Gal is firm in his refusal, but Logan won’t be spurned—his very manhood is on the line. His entreaties devolve into verbal assaults (“F—k off, wanker, yer doin’ it!”), then threats, then acts of flesh-pummeling brutality; and so scenes that begin with the measured menace of Harold Pinter (with a jolt of Pinter’s Yank disciple, David Mamet) end up as stone-psycho freak shows.

The story line is slender, but watch how director Jonathan Glazer and screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto twist the picture’s syntax so that the coiled little psychodrama at its core fits into a larger universe of blokes having their way with other blokes. Bug-eyed Logan sits stiffly in Gal’s bright hacienda and tells him of the nocturnal summons from middleman Andy (Robert Atiko), who is seen in flashback telling Logan the story of the summons from his boss, Teddy Bass (Ian McShane)—who is seen in flashback observing a twitty, upper-class orgy (it’s like a saggy-fleshed parody of Eyes Wide Shut [1999]) in which he meets the lazily effete director of an “impregnable” vault (James Fox) and determines to insert himself therein. Bass (“Mr. Black Magic himself”), with his clenched, jet-black hair and simmering deadpan, must prevail over that limp-wristed aristocrat, just as his underling Logan must now have his Gal, whom he yanks out of bed with the summons, “Get up, you c—t. I love you, Gal. You’re lovable. Big lunk. Lovable lunk. Lummox. Big oaf …” In the dark shadow of Don Logan, Gal’s new life of material pleasure can be seen not as brain-deadening but soul-reviving. This little world he has constructed—with his rather pathetic friends, been-around-the-block spouse, and even a surrogate son (Álvaro Monje), a girlishly slim Spanish pool-boy—looks like a paradise presided over by the universe’s most benevolent patriarch. It’s worth the fight to keep from going back to the nasty boys.

Director Glazer made his name with commercials for Guinness (this is his first feature), and the opening of Sexy Beast—Gal observed from above, in sunglasses, swelling out of his swim trunks in a lounge beside a heart-shaped pool, a winking advertisement for the good life—is a shade too archly storyboarded. You might prepare yourself for a self-conscious “exercise in style” like those overbearing Guy Ritchie pictures or—moving further up the evolutionary ladder—Memento (2001), The Limey (1999), Croupier (1998), or the granddaddy of all good film-school thrillers, Blood Simple (1984).

I like Sexy Beast better than any of the above, though. It has the compression of a play (a goof on Pinter, but still with Pinter’s bite) and the expansiveness of a novella. Ironic on the surface, it’s romantic one flight down, and it gets deeper into its characters’ heads than most works in this genre. When Logan tortures Gal by commending the sordid past of “dirty Deedee,” the director cuts to a shot of Deedee in bed, listening, and then another shot, slightly to her left, with Gal’s absence more prominent, with all her sorrow, terror, and plangent dislocation packed into that single second of film. Glazer doesn’t merely compose great shots. He builds pedestals to great actors: to the capaciously congenial Winstone; Amanda Redman, more beautiful for going slightly to seed (like Sharon Stone with soul); the late, poignantly unintelligible Cavan Kendall; the hilarious—and scarily hard—Ian McShane; and, of course, Ben Kingsley, giving the ultimate change-your-image bulldozer performance.

The big vein in Kingsley’s bald head—first viewed from behind, as he strides through an airport—looks as if it carries electricity: He’s a wired little putz. At first, his monosyllabic responses to innocent questions explode on our ears like hand grenades, and he regards the creamy, sun-kissed Spanish décor with an arsonist’s shining eyes. More and more enraged when Gal won’t submit to him (that he won’t, in effect, be his gal), Logan lets go with some florid, scatological rants and then degenerates into school-playground assertions of will. (“Fanks for finking of me,” says Gal. “Do the job.” “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “I can’t.” “You can.” “I can’t.” “You can.”) The fury is visceral, but so is a strange kind of longing—it emerges in a scene in which Logan stares into the mirror while he shaves and curses himself for having revealed too much to his adversary. Kingsley makes Logan’s hunger for dominance not merely a taste but a vampiric need—the source of his very life force.

The script attempts to make it seem as if Logan carries the torch for Aitch’s blond wife, Jackie, whom he has previously seduced, and who pleasantly surprised him, he informs Gal, with a finger shoved all the way up his bum. But that strikes me as an unconvincing twist—a semi-hetero dodge. The thrust of Sexy Beast is wryly homoerotic, from its opening with the girlish pool-boy to Logan’s convulsively funny projections of gayness on the rest of the world to the big caper itself—launched from a bath house, with the robbers stripped to their trunks and wielding underwater jackhammers. (“Gentlemen,” announces Teddy Bass by way of congratulations, “you’re all c—ts.”) I’ve never seen a crime picture that had so much fun with the convoluted homosexual longings at the heart of sociopathic machismo. It says an Englishman has to go to Spain to escape all that wayward testosterone.

There’s also a bit of homoeroticism at the heart of the race-cars-and-boys saga The Fast and the Furious—but it’s kept so muffled that the movie finally loses its forward thrust. The object of worship isn’t the clean-cut hero (Paul Walker—watch everyone in the theater say, “Whose voice does he have?” before someone yells, “Keanu!”). It’s the appropriately named Vin Diesel as the leader of a band of renegade racers that might or might not be responsible for a series of acrobatic, high-speed truck heists. This and last year’s Pitch Black should make the muscular, bullheaded Diesel our newest unconventional sex symbol, but what really turns me on is that voice—deep but bone-dry, eat-my-dust dry. In an expensive, big-studio movie, Walker’s character can’t want to jump Diesel’s bones, so Diesel gets a beauteous sister (Jordana Brewster) to help blur the issue.

The movie turns out to be a variation on juvenile-delinquent hot-rod films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it’s good at capturing the outlaw camaraderie of kids who haunt the night looking for chances to max out the engines they’ve been tinkering with all day. (“I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” says Diesel, in a line so nice they play it twice. “For those 10 seconds or less I’m free.”) With its squeals and vroooms and brain-rattling streaks across the screen—the whole movie sounds like one of those cars with road-shaking bass—it certainly isn’t boring. At its best, it reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow’s screwed-up but very entertaining Point Break (1991) with the actual Keanu Reeves dogging Patrick Swayze, a surfer who also robs banks. Director Rob Cohen doesn’t have anything like Bigelow’s graphic elegance, but the real problem is that the narrative takes a gutless turn and replaces the central (and exciting) conflict with a whole different set of villains. Fearless as these racers are, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for a movie that plays chicken and then swerves about a mile before the collision.