Battle of the Sexy Beasts
When it comes to the original film versus the new series, there's no contest.
The director Jonathan Glazer scored his first Oscar nomination this week, for the film Zone of Interest. Coincidentally (probably?), a television series based on Glazer’s 2000 feature debut, Sexy Beast, began streaming on Paramount+ just two days later. Although Sexy Beast the series is a prequel to Sexy Beast the movie, and although the original’s screenwriters, Louis Mellis and David Scinto, are both credited as executive producers on the show, Glazer himself seems to have nothing to do with it. The showrunner is Michael Caleo, whose previous credits include a single episode from the fifth season of The Sopranos, and The Family, a decidedly-not-good Luc Besson-directed mob comedy starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.
And I’m not suggesting that Paramount+ somehow magically planned for the un-Glazed Sexy Beast to air the same week Glazer was nominated for an Academy Award - they could have hoped he was gonna be nominated and that people would make the connection, at best. And I’m DEFINITELY not suggesting that Paramount+ did this with the specific purpose of making Glazer look good, because why would they do that?
I’m just saying, both of those things are true. Jonathan Glazer was nominated for his first Oscar the same week someone turned his brilliant first movie into a terrible television show. That is something that has now happened.
Which is as good an excuse as any to revisit Sexy Beast the motion picture, which remains one of the best crime films produced this century, and a shining example of how sometimes less is more.
At its heart, the conflict around which Glazer’s Sexy Beast revolves could not be simpler. It’s a battle of wills between one guy trying to convince another guy to accept a job offer. I’m not even kidding. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist quite literally comes down to the issue of “yes” versus “no.”
How does Sexy Beast maintain such an elementary conflict for ninety minutes? Because it’s all about who is saying “yes” or “no” and what is at stake for them by saying “yes” or “no.”
See, the job in question happens to be a dangerous criminal endeavor. And the protagonist, Gal (an incredible Ray Winstone), is happily retired, living in a palatial, remote villa in Spain with his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), who used to perform in adult films. Gal and Deedee are very deeply in love and leading a life of leisure alongside another retired gangster, Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and his wife, Jackie (Julianne White). And Gal, it is suggested, has already spent nine years in prison. He has absolutely no desire to do this job. Why would he?
But the antagonist is Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley, brilliantly cast against type), and Don Logan is not the kind of guy who takes “no” for an answer. The mere mention of his name induces discomfort for the group; he’s a violent, immature sociopath incapable of having a normal adult conversation without making everyone uncomfortable, and while he would never admit as much, he’s lonely, he’s envious, and he took Gal’s retirement personally. He’s like a homicidal Michael Scott.
So. There’s this complicated heist that has to be done.
If Gal does it, he may be arrested or killed or sucked back into the seedy London underworld he has escaped, and he will be separated from the woman he loves so much she is his very reason for being. He has everything to lose!
And in Don Logan’s mind, if Gal doesn’t do it, it says something negative about Don Logan and how Gal feels about Don Logan - and Don Logan can’t have that, because he is incapable of processing the feeling of rejection and (what he sees as) humiliation. He has everything to lose!
Consequently, every time Gal CANNOT say “yes,” and Don Logan CANNOT hear “no.” They CANNOT. They have everything to lose!!!
So ever time Gal says “no,” it escalates things. And given Don Logan’s propensity for violence, that escalation is tense. It’s like watching tennis players hit a live grenade back and forth, the force of their swings steadily increasing with each successive volley.
That is how Sexy Beast maintains such an elementary plot for ninety minutes.
Caleo and his creative team only seem to have understood Sexy Beast in superficial terms. When we first meet Gal in the original Sexy Beast, he’s sunbathing while The Stranglers’ “Peaches” plays on the soundtrack; when we first meet Gal (now played by James McArdle), in the series, he’s sunbathing while the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” plays on the soundtrack. In the original Sexy Beast, Don Logan wears a short-sleeve button-down shirt and gray pants; in the series Sexy Beast, Don Logan (Emun Elliott) wears a short-sleeve button-down shirt and gray pants. Sexy Beast the film includes a powerful mob boss named Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), who wears silk robes and has gay sex; Sexy Beast the series introduces Teddy (Stephen Moyer) in a silk robe, getting a manicure. Oh, and since the plot of the original Sexy Beast was all about Don Logan trying to get Gal to agree to do a job he doesn’t wanna do, the plot of the Sexy Beast pilot episode is - you guessed it! - all about Don Logan trying to get Gal to agree to do a job he doesn’t wanna do.
If only Caleo had so lovingly aped Sexy Beast’s sense of stakes: on the show, Gal isn’t retired, he hasn’t met Deedee yet, and he doesn’t seem particularly intimidated by Don Logan, while Don Logan doesn’t take Gal’s refusal personally, because his motivation is all based around trying to please his older sister (Tamsin Greig). There are no significant consequences for one of them getting or not-getting his way.
In fact, I can’t really imagine that Sexy Beast would ever have made it to series if it weren’t branded as Sexy Beast. It’s not just a generic mob show - it’s a lousy generic mob show.