Mob Scene

'Sexy Beast' is a real gang bang.

AS SEXY BEAST OPENS, pudgy ex-gangster Gal is standing in his back yard when an enormous boulder flies past him, crashing into his pool. With his saggy skin and the drink in his hand contributing to the glaze in his eyes, Gal is the image of vulnerability, and the rock that has just missed him is a two-ton cinematic symbol of that.

Ray Winstone plays Gal as an adorable giant baby. He constantly looks just slightly scared and hungry, and it's hard not to reach through the screen and cuddle his flabby, middle-aged body.

While Gal is the cute side of second childhood, Ben Kingsley plays its more sinister form: a four-year-old in the body of an ex-middleweight champion. Kingsley is Don, an old crime partner of Gal's who returns to ask Gal to go on one more job with him.

Now, this is a plot we've seen a million times, but the surprising and wonderful thing about Sexy Beast is that this is merely a distraction from the real plot, which is about personal relationships and, in an odd move for a "gangster film," tender feelings.

Don is so childish that his response to being told that Gal won't be taking part in his caper is to shout "No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!" Well, there are a lot more "no"s in there, but you get the picture. It's an amazing scene, with Kingsley combining an intense immaturity with the constant threat of a violence.

Both Kingsley and Winstone would get Academy Awards for their work, if only they still gave an Academy Award for acting. Instead, they'll have to settle with simply having given two of the best performances of the year.

The supporting cast is also uniformly excellent. Bizarrely excellent, actually; there's not one bad performance in the movie. I'm not sure how director Jonathon Glazer pulled this off, but I'm guessing it had something to do with the fact that Sexy Beast is an English production.

See, in an American film it's very hard to get financing without having lots of pretty, young people as stars. In Sexy Beast Winstone's Gal is shown as deeply in love with his wife, DeeDee, who's played by . Redman looks every one of her 41 years, and has a large mass of burn scars on her upper arm. I can't imagine she'd have been green-lighted for the role by a Hollywood studio when Tyra Banks and Shannon Elizabeth are so readily available. But Redman is perfect for the part, and having Gal be in love with someone his own age is such an unusual concept in a movie that it seems stunning to remember that in real life, it's not the case that all 45-year-old men date 18-year-old super-models.

In fact, pretty much everyone in Sexy Beast is middle-aged, and none of them want to respond to that by having sex with minors while hang-gliding through a series of explosions in order to save the world. I guess the British are just different than we are.

In fact, even Ben Kingsley's Don, who has remained in fighting trim, is not really all that interested in pulling off another daring caper. Rather, he has come to Gal's villa in the south of Spain because he is in love with middle-aged Jackie, the wife of Gal's best friend, Aitch.

Don is not someone you'd want as an obsessive stalker, and, surprisingly, Jackie doesn't respond well to his persistent and threatening attempts to woo her by means of deceit and evil. In short, this is not an American-made romantic comedy.

Instead, Gal, Aitch, Deedee and Jackie spend the first half of the film in still terror of Don, who they just hope will go away. All this plays out against beautiful, slowly photographed desert landscapes, with subtle and understated editing that gives the film an open sense and contributes to the oppressive threat of the sociopathic Don.

The film is not without cinematic trickery, but it's contrasted so heavily by the natural tone of the cinematography and acting that it manages to stand out, something that would be impossible in a special-effects heavy production.

Gal has a recurring dream of being stalked by a rifle-wielding creature who is half man, half rabbit. The dream sequences are also slow and cautious, and the music accents this, never devolving into the rapid beats or swelling strings that are commonly used to manipulate audiences. Instead, the jazzy soundtrack, with some modern pieces by Unkle (DJ Shadow's band), provides atmosphere without giving instructions on how a viewer is supposed to feel.

In sum, Sexy Beast is a beautiful, small film. It doesn't aspire to greatness or epic proportions, and it succeeds in conveying actual human feeling. Plus, if you can understand the deep British accents ("Fanks for finkin' of me" is a typical line of dialogue), it's often hilariously funny, and frankly, all that is a lot to ask from a summer movie.

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