There are starlets and ingénues working today who have never had the camera leer at them as shamelessly as it does on Ray Winstone during the opening scene of the 2000 film Sexy Beast. After a shot of the sun glaring down from a cloudless sky, our gaze rests on Gal (Winstone), an Englishman lounging by a pool as he mutters a status report on the weather:
I'm sweatin' here.
It's like a sauna.
You could fry an egg on my stomach.
The soundtrack kicks alive with "Peaches," a lurid paean to a summer spent staring at girls on the beach at a seaside town, a crudely ironic 1977 anthem to puerile sexism by The Stranglers, the oldest and most musically adept of the first wave British punk bands. We, on the other hand, are getting an eyeful of Gal's paunchy, hairless torso and legs, his modesty barely preserved by tiny yellow swim trunks, his skin glistening and lobster red.
Gal's East End/Essex accent, and the pool boy he good-naturedly goads into working a bit harder with his broom on the poolside tiles, is our first big clue that we're among the community of British expats who flee the rain and chill of their homeland for the Iberian Peninsula. Places like Marbella, Torremolinos, Estepona, Fuengirola, Lliber, Magaluf, Rojales, Cascais, Tomar and Lagoa – the Costa del Sol, Alicante, Almeria and the Algarve. Places where you can get a pint of Strongbow, Tetley's or Fuller's London Pride with your paella, and where British pensions and a pound can go a long way.
The camera's focus on Gal and his sunburnt epidermis continues as he pulls himself upright, then drags a dishcloth from a bowl of ice cubes and places it gingerly on his groin. He struggles to his feet and staggers around the pool to find his sandals and a little battery-operated fan that he points at his head, desperate for relief from the heat.
All the while a boulder comes loose from the cliff face behind his house; the camera attaches itself to the huge rock, spinning as it gathers speed rolling down toward the pool, before launching off the banking behind Gal, missing his head by inches as it plunges into the water, drenching Gal and the pool boy. Something, we know, is on its way for Gal.
But before the imminent menace arrives we get a glimpse of the little world Gary "Gal" Dove has built for himself under the Spanish sun. There's Gal's wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman), his mate Aitch (Cavan Kendall) – a real diamond geezer – and his wife Jackie (Julianne White). Along with Enrique, the local boy who Gal pays to help him out around their villa, they've formed a little society for themselves, far away from Britain and what we infer to be Gal's onetime profession as a gangster.
Gal loves it here – loves DeeDee, loves his friends, and loves the distance he's built from his former life and the oppressive, sunless British weather. That life, however, returns in the form of Don Logan, a former associate in charge of putting together a team for a big heist, and probably one of the most indelible psychopaths ever committed to a movie screen.
I saw Sexy Beast for the first time at a preview screening before its debut at the Toronto film festival, and I was sucked in from the moment JJ Burnel's growling bass guitar introduced "Peaches". The film – the first for Jonathan Glazer, known until then mostly for commercials and music videos – got rave reviews right from the start, most of them eager to celebrate Ben Kingsley's performance as Don, described with wonder as about as far away as you could get from Mahatma Gandhi.
Sir Ben Kingsley. Toronto, 2000. Photo by Rick McGinnis
In interviews at the time and since, Kingsley talked about his decision to foreground Don in his own mind as a victim of childhood sexual abuse who had turned his trauma into aggression and hostility. He also talked about Don as a "missile," a weapon designed for violence who lands in people's lives and wreaks destruction while spouting a stream of conscious profanities.
It's understatement to describe Don as a bully. A bully can exist in any playground or office; Don's belligerence would stand out in normal settings, and only thrives in that sanctioned place on either side of the law. He's a jagged blade in a coiled spring, devoid of tact or empathy, oblivious to the insults he showers on everyone around him and apparently only concerned with getting Gal to London for the heist.
'No' is the only answer Gal is willing to give, and it's the only one Don is unwilling to accept, so most of Kingsley's forty incredible onscreen minutes are spent relentlessly harrying Gal into providing the only acceptable answer.
Don tries at first, with obvious effort, to behave like a normal human being, but he's incapable of anything like a convincing impression; he holds Aitch in contempt, is happy to remind Gal of DeeDee's former fame as a porn star, and fixates on Jackie, with whom Don had a one night stand that he is unwilling to forget.
But the effort of maintaining this mask is beyond Don, and he quickly starts threatening Gal – verbally and violently – while inviting himself to spend the night with Gal and DeeDee after he intentionally misses his flight home. It's like having a serial killer or a wild animal living under your roof, and Don wastes no time letting Gal know what he thinks about excuses that he's retired, forcing us once again to fixate on Gal's skin:
"Retired. F--k off, you're revolting. Look at your f--king suntan. Like leather. It's like leather man, your skin. You could make a f--king suitcase out of you. Hold-all. Like a crocodile. Fat crocodile. Fat bastard. You look like Idi Amin, you know what I mean?"
We have seen how Don's malignant reputation precedes him when Aitch and Jackie tell Gal that he's on his way. Once there, only DeeDee has the nerve to defy him, making this rampaging wild animal leave their bedroom when he bursts in to kick the sleeping Gal. His tactic isn't to wear Gal down as much as beat him into submission.
"This is madness," Gal pleads with Don, trying and failing to withstand the onslaught. "I've had enough of this crime and punishment bollocks. I'm happy here."
"I won't let you be happy!" Don bellows back. "Why should I?"
Don is seemingly obsessed with both Jackie and by Gal, whose former good looks he recalls avidly and resentfully. He talks about sex with the stilted crudeness of a disturbed child; in a horribly funny scene after Don gets himself kicked off a plane for smoking, he treats a security official at the airport to his description of being sexually abused by the male flight attendants, and their groping of his "front bottom."
It's hard, after enduring Don's harrowing verbal torture of Gal and his friends, not to wonder just what sort of intimidating underworld heavy would employ someone like Don. The answer is Teddy Bass, the "prince of darkness," played with infernal, smirking, unblinking intensity by none other than Ian McShane.
The story of the heist and Teddy Bass is told in a series of flashes forward and back; Teddy apparently conceived it after an encounter at a society orgy where he met Harry (James Fox), the chairman of an exclusive private bank with a reputedly impenetrable vault. The information, we're led to believe, was only obtained after an undisclosed amount of sodomy.
English gangster films distinguish themselves from their American counterparts by their implication that sexual perversity and not just sociopathy is a common factor in organized crime, where being bent is understood in all definitions of the word. This goes back to Richard Attenborough's Pinkie Brown in the 1948 film of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, through Get Carter (1971), Peter Greenaway's surreal The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) Gangster No. 1 (2000), 44 Inch Chest (a 2009 movie starring both Winstone and McShane) and films about the Kray twins such as Legend (2015).
Gal is troubled by persistent nightmares involving a sinister rabbit man covered in coarse, wiry hair, sporting spurs and carrying an uzi. When he returns to London for the heist we learn that the rabbit man is Teddy Bass, who pointedly and repeatedly questions Gal about the whereabouts of the missing Don. Gal says Don called him from Heathrow after leaving Spain, but we know that's not true even before Don's actual fate is revealed, piecemeal, while Gal, Teddy and his crew of guffawing gangster grotesques execute the robbery.
The actual heist is remarkably similar to London's famous 2015 Hatton Garden caper, when an impenetrable vault was broken into from the basement of a neighbouring jeweler, though Teddy's robbery is imagined with the swimming pool of a sauna to create a fantastic, watery heist with floating bank notes and securities.
The perversity of the modern gangster story since at least the Godfather movies all the way through Scarface and Goodfellas to The Sopranos is that we're coerced against our better judgment into rooting for the bad guys, even when we know that organized crime is a violent, parasitic enterprise that predates on communities and spawns endless corruption.
We never have to think about how Gal got the nest egg for his Costa del Sol retirement, and Winstone does such a good job making him sympathetic that we root for him to resist Don and then, when that fails, to survive Teddy's heist and make it back to DeeDee and their villa.
We want it even more when Glazer reveals how Don was killed after returning from the airport in a rage and smashing a bottle on Gal's head. Enrique is unable to shoot Don with the ancient rifle we saw misfire earlier in the movie, but DeeDee's aim is more certain.
After everything we've seen it should come as no surprise that Don is apparently unkillable, and despite a savage beating from everyone and another point blank shot he still manages to spout filthy curses while lying in a growing pool of blood, ratcheting up the perversity by pausing for a moment to tell Jackie he loved her. It takes Aitch to deliver the coup de grace, and the film ends with Gal back at his villa enjoying the heat and light with his friends, but only after a tense exchange with Teddy where he said that he knew what happened in Spain, and that he was sparing Gal only because "didn't give a fuck" about Don. As a final humiliation, Teddy only gives Gal a tenner for his part in the heist, and even makes him break a twenty.
Sexy Beast launched Jonathan Glazer's career nicely, with great reviews and awards including Best Director from the British Independent Film Awards. His next film, Birth, an unsettling drama about reincarnation starring Nicole Kidman, wasn't so well received, but Under The Skin, a fantastically eerie sci-fi film featuring Scarlet Johansson as an alien sexual predator, has developed a cult following since it was released in 2013.
Sexy Beast did wonders for Ben Kingsley, who began 2000 on a low note, playing The Great Zamboni in Spooky House, an astoundingly awful family film known mostly for being derided by YouTubers. Don Logan won him numerous critics awards and nominations for best supporting actor from the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. It set him up for a much better career in the new millennium, which included a knighthood in 2002 and a berth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Aitch was actor Cavan Kendall's last role, and he died before Sexy Beast was released. Ray Winstone came by his cockney credentials honestly, being born in Hackney and held as a baby by Ronnie Kray. He's faithfully represented the East End, playing wide boys, geezers, villains and chancers in a long career that began with Quadrophenia, though he credits his role in Sexy Beast with landing his part in 2008's dismal Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a gratitude that seems in retrospect both generous and misplaced.
Speaking of wholly unnecessary projects, it was announced in 2018 that a prequel TV series to Sexy Beast was in the works, but that's pre-Covid, a long time ago now, and Paramount mercifully buried the project last year.
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