Do the Job – Sexy Beast (2000)

Renowned, Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley tears across the screen with such ferocity in Sexy Beast that viewers would be forgiven for remembering little else about the film beyond his performance. That was certainly the case for me. The movie is a fairly entertaining little crime thriller, but I’d forgotten almost everything about the story and plot since first seeing it two decades ago.

Details tend to fade from memory over that length of time regardless. However, the problem may be exacerbated in this case because the movie itself is otherwise very modest in scope or ambition, and Kingsley’s character feels outsized compared to the rest of it. That mostly works to the film’s benefit, in that he gives audiences something really thrilling and memorable to latch onto. At the same time, his showboating (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what he’s doing) can detract attention away from the solid effort the rest of the cast puts in.

Title:Sexy Beast
Year of Release: 2000 – Festivals
2001 – Wide Release
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Watched On: HD DVD
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

That Kinglsey would score another Oscar nomination (his third at the time) for the role was little surprise to anyone who’d seen it, but the actual lead of the film is Ray Winstone as Gal, a former safecracker who has left his old life of crime behind and retired to a villa in the Spanish countryside. Although he may have never struck it truly big as a gangster, Gal did well enough to set up a comfortable life for himself, wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), and a pair of friends. The last thing in the world he’d ever want to do is go back to work, nor should he have any need to.

When word comes that former partner in crime Don Logan (Kingsley) is en route for the specific purpose of recruiting Gal for a planned bank heist, his name alone stokes fear and panic within the group. They all know Don well as a relentless bulldog of a man, completely lacking in social niceties or basic human empathy. He’s a straight-up sociopath, incapable of disguising his nature for anyone else’s benefit. As much as Gal tries, as politely but firmly as possible, to turn down the job offer, Don will never take no for an answer. The more Gal resists, the more abusive and violently determined Don becomes. He has the disposition of a toddler throwing a tantrum, with the capacity and inclination to murder anyone who doesn’t immediately give him what he wants.

Barking non-stop stream-of-consciousness profanity, Don is a creature of pure id with no self control. In a rare private moment, even he laments his inability to shut his mouth or keep his thoughts to himself. Kingsley delivers a marvelously entertaining performance, about as far removed as possible from his most famous roles in Gandhi or Schindler’s List. More than that, the character is a brilliantly blunt deconstruction of the “charming gangster” trope. Don has nothing resembling charm, and wastes no time pretending to care what anyone thinks of him. He’s an instrument of chaos and terror, nothing more.

With so much attention on Kingsley’s theatrics, Ray Winstone is forced to play straight man, yet manages to carve out an interesting character. His Gal is long past his prime and has clearly let himself go, putting on a lot of extra weight as a sign of his contentedness in retirement. But he’s still quite vain and sees himself as a stud, until Don comes around and puts him in his place. Also notable in supporting roles are Ian McShane as a high-level crime boss who’s intimidating in ways very different from Don, and James Fox (once a famous movie gangster himself in Nicolas Roeg’s Performance) as the mark whose bank is the target of the planned caper.

Sexy Beast was the debut feature for former music video director Jonathan Glazer. It’s a very stylish picture, with showy camerawork and occasional surreal flourishes. It’s often humorous, and the climactic heist is inventively staged. All the same, at under 89 minutes long, the story feels slight. The whole thing is basically a showcase for one actor, and without him, the rest of it wouldn’t amount to much we hadn’t already seen plenty of times before in this genre. I guess that’s why I had such trouble remembering much about it. I won’t be surprised if the same happens again before the next time I feel like giving it a look.

The HD DVD (Yes, Really, HD DVD!)

Sexy Beast is often credited as a film from 2000, but only played in festival screenings that year. The movie didn’t start its official theatrical runs in either the UK or United States until 2001, which is when I saw it in a cinema. While memory is often unreliable, I could swear it was projected at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. However, IMDb claims that the movie was shot in the Super 35 format for a 2.35:1 ratio, and I’m not prepared to argue against it.

The subject of aspect ratio is a little confusing for this title. The initial DVD release in 2002 stated a 1.85:1 ratio on the back of the case art, but was actually presented in a matted 2.35:1 on the disc itself. I never had that disc or paid it much attention. My only physical media copy of the movie was released in 2008 on the now-defunct HD DVD format, as a UK import from label Film 4. That disc only contains an open-matte 16:9 transfer. Given my assumption that the movie should be 1.85:1, I didn’t question it at the time. Five years later, in 2013, a Blu-ray edition appeared as a limited edition from Twilight Time offering two separate viewing options, one in 16:9 and the other in 2.35:1.

I don’t own the Twilight Time disc, and it’s long since out of print. Reviews with screencaps (such as these at DVDBeaver) show the 16:9 version to be a straightforward open-matte presentation with more picture information on the top and bottom of the image but no extra on the sides. Meanwhile, the 2.35:1 version is a direct center extraction from the precise middle of the frame.

If Sexy Beast were currently available on any of my subscription streaming services, I probably would have watched it there. Failing that, I pulled the HD DVD out of a storage trunk and fired up my Toshiba HD-XA2 with some trepidation. I hadn’t watched an HD DVD in ages and was a little nervous that either the player or the disc would flake out on me. Fortunately, I had no such problems. The movie played fine, start to finish.

Sexy Beast (2000) HD DVD

Because I’d forgotten about the aspect ratio issue until looking up the Blu-ray details afterward, I didn’t think much about the 16:9 framing while watching. Nothing in particular stood out to me as looking inaccurate or poorly framed. On the other hand, now that I’m aware of it again, I can think of a number of shots that would look more dynamically composed if matted to 2.35:1, especially during the opening credits. In any case, the 16:9 presentation is acceptable, if not ideal.

In other respects, the HD DVD looks reasonably decent but could use a remaster. (Most reviews of the Blu-ray say the same.) The 1080p image is adequately sharp with decent colors, but black level and contrast are a little flat. The film elements also exhibit a minor but recurring appearance of speckles and dirt. Most problematic is the heavy video compression. The image lacks definition of film grain and often looks slightly mushy. When it does appear, grain has a habit of freezing on screen. Blocky compression artifacts are also occasionally visible in dark scenes. It’s not unwatchable by any means. However, it looks more like something you’d catch one one of the less reliable streaming services. I expect better from physical media, no matter the format.

The movie’s 5.1 soundtrack is encoded in the seldomly used DTS-HD High Resolution codec, which is a high bit-rate but lossy format. Fidelity is fine for the most part. The bouncy score is enveloping and some scenes (especially the heist climax) feature very aggressive surround usage. Most of the actors speak in thick Cockney accents, which can be difficult to discern at times. I’m not sure whether that’s a disc authoring issue, or stems back to the original recording and/or mixing. The latter wouldn’t surprise me.

The limited extras consist of an audio commentary featuring producer Jeremy Thomas and star Ben Kingsley, an audio description track, a seven-minute EPK featurette, and a few trailers and TV spots.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s