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Suddenly Last Summer, Mate

Shiny with suntan oil, the beefy, retired gangster Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is basking happily in the Spanish sun at his home in the Costa del Sol when, out of nowhere, a huge boulder crashes down the mountain behind him, bounces over his reclining body and plops into the swimming pool. This is the startling opening of "Sexy Beast," and like much that will follow in this stylish and unsettling English film noir, it catches you off guard, uncertain whether to laugh or shiver.

Gal's near brush with death is a sign that his blissful retirement with his adoring wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), is about to be shattered. Enter Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), his old underworld partner and nemesis. Don wants to lure Gal back into his old life of crime; he's putting together a team for a bank heist back in London, and he won't take no for an answer.

"Sexy Beast" does end up in London, and a robbery does take place, but first-time director Jonathan Glazer and writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto have more on their minds than just another neo-noir heist movie. They are interested in character first, and in Don, a foulmouthed psychopath with a hair-trigger temper and buried longings for Gal's wife, they have created a truly scary antagonist. And in Gal, an affable sensualist and ex-con, they have created a three-dimensional lowlife hero more complex than the genre usually allows.

Gal and Don's tense duel of wits, played out in long dialogue scenes that have a Pinteresque flavor of deflected menace, is a demonstration of bravura acting. Kingsley and Winstone have totally different styles, the former's theatricality beautifully playing off the latter's naturalism. Winstone, who has played brutes in "The War Zone" and "Nil by Mouth," is an actor who tends to disappear inside his roles. Who knew he could be so sympathetic? Kingsley, who may have the most burning eyes in cinema, can never be other than Kingsley, whether he is playing a saint like Gandhi or a seething maniac like Don Logan. But the fact that you are aware of him acting doesn't make him any less convincing, or terrifying.

When these two aren't on screen together, "Sexy Beast" loses some of its momentum. But only some. The talented Glazer keeps things crisp, clean and purposeful. The only flab on this film is around the waist of its sybaritic hero, a working-class crook who has finally gotten a taste of the good life, and doesn't want to lose it.

Sexy BeastFox Searchlight
Opens June 13