Tom Jolliffe double bills two cockney gangster films from the turn of the century in The Limey and Sexy Beast…
Toward the end of the last century, leading into the new one, the British gangster film really seemed to take off again. We saw the emergence of a number of significant exponents of the genre, most notably Guy Ritchie. His opening gambit, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels remains his best film, whilst Snatch was a great follow up. A number of actors then became synonymous with the genre, like Danny Dyer who made a mixed bag to say the least, but some of his earlier works are now pretty iconic.
Among some of the more interesting efforts (Gangster No 1 for example) there are two which particularly stand out. Now, one is decidedly British. Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer’s first film, may take the action to Spain, but it’s British bulldog all the way through. The other is American made and casts an interesting gaze over the humble British geezer gangster by playing the Get Carter routine, but having our gangster travel from London to the US in search of his daughters killer. That would be The Limey, so let’s start there.
Steven Soderbergh is an interesting filmmaker. I’ve never got fully into him. He’s got vision and he’s extremely prolific. He’s not afraid of stripping right back to character driven and budget conscious films. Well, not so much budget, but he’ll seemingly approach some films with a freestyling nature and energy that feels like there’s an immediacy to the whole thing (think, Unsane perhaps). There are the more carefully conceived and constructed films with clearly longer development. There are the whimsical flights of fancy where he’s filling a space and just making a film because making films is great. This can still produce magic of course. Think of Coppola, between his first two Godfathers, almost bee-bopping out The Conversation like he’s riffing at a slam poetry competition. It didn’t take the precision or time that The Godfather did, but it delivered in a different, raw, rough and enjoyable manner.
Soderbergh’s The Limey feels a little like one of those. There’s some freestyling. There’s some things he does, particularly in his choice of editing and structure that show a guy playing with flights of fancy. It works, and more so, it’s also inherently interesting. See this could have been British made and had that unmistakable British stamp on it. It’s on the surface a fairly routine quest for revenge, a retelling of the Get Carter formula, but it’s given an interesting quality, because it’s being told by Soderbergh. He does poetic moments well. He does introspection well, and there’s a certain Americanised sheen and style that’s distinct to Soderbergh and he’s enjoying his riffing with framing, focus, and the cutting. The integration of some archive footage from Stamp’s younger days is also very well done.
In the centre, we have Terence Stamp in brilliant form as our titular criminal. It’s back to some of the bread and butter of his earlier career and enjoyable to see but Stamp revels in taking a London gangster routine into L.A. There are some other great performances from Lesley Ann Warren, Peter Fonda and Luis Guzman (it’s too easy to forget he used to play serious roles, with great aplomb). However this is all about Stamp and the vibrant energy Soderbergh brings to re-invent a well worn story.
Jonathan Glazer’s cinematic career is irregular to say the least but also very interesting. One might have assumed, after breaking out with an almost instantaneous cult classic like Sexy Beast, that he’d stick largely to similar genres. After all, Scorsese would, for a time focus a lot on New York, crime and wise-guys. Glazer followed up with the controversial Birth and then almost a decade later, Under The Skin. Three more diverse films you couldn’t wish to find.
Sexy Beast is a beautifully shot exercise in razor sharp wit, great exchanges and memorable characters. Glazer is a visual stylist and it showed here. Aided by the sunny locales and the perma-sweat of Ray Winstone, he’s crafted one of the definitive Brit wide boy in Spain, films.
What made Sexy Beast really stand out and manage to maintain it’s own kind of iconic status (difficult as a British crime film around peak Ritchie era) is that style. For the genre it’s almost unsurpassed for dialogue and it comes out with even more natural aplomb than the slightly more deliberate stylings of Ritchie’s dialogue, but this is also because he never had Ben Kingsley, in total character immersion delivering the dialogue, nor a pwoper geeeezer like Raymondo Winston either. Kingsley is absolutely mesmerising here, devouring scenery.
With Winstone reluctantly dragged back into a life of crime at the insistence of the equal measures hilarious and terrifying Kingsley, the film pays off wonderfully. It’s one of those films that never fails to entertain me when I catch it. It could be a segment on TV, a clip on youtube, or just streaming it in full (because if I catch it from kick off, I usually find myself sticking with it till the final whistle) but it’s still brilliant. The ability to shift between riotously comic and grippingly intense is also something that few films can pull off (see also In Bruges as an example) but this does it, and that’s the mark of a film-maker like Glazer.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/