NOTE: This essay originally appeared in 2001, in Crime Time 24, linked somewhat belatedly to the release of Sexy Beast and the non-release of Two Days, Nine Lives. That was because it had originally been sold to The Independent, who liked the idea of mocking pseudo-tough guys, but then said 'wait a minute!, you're taking the piss out of BRITISH films, British directors, British actors, and British men! And Guy Ritchie too! This editor was also a fan of Bros and Spandau Ballet. I was oddly prescient too: this was four years before Daniel Craig played James Bond; Craig's Bond is a Texas Hold 'Em playing David Beckham clone. I went back and looked at this essay again after the death of John McKenzie; I remember seeing him present The Long Good Friday when it had its English debut at the London Film Festival, and marvelling at how good it was. I thought most of you would have missed this in CT, or forgotten it by now, and that you might like to read it now, and consider how times have changed.
WHAT MAKES THE BRITISH HARDMAN HARD?
Only a few generations ago the cinema’s epitome of British masculinity wore a dinner jacket, played chemin der fer, and drank martinis ‘shaken not stirred’. Today Bond would be hard put to reclaim his place as a role model for British manhood from his contemporaries, the Krays. If this switch from Sean Connery or Roger Moore to the likes of Ross or Gary Kemp, or a steady stream of middle class actors playing untough toughs in a series of ever more preposterous crime films, British masculinity is being stirred, if not shaken, by gangster chic.
Beneath all the geezer bluster lurks a deep-seated macho unease at what exactly stirs the swizzle stick. Recall that US distributors famously told Harry Salzman they didn’t want the first Bond film because they didn’t think audiences would believe in a British hero as a womaniser. Four decades later it seems that for once the Yanks got it right.
On the surface, gangland would appear to be a perfect metaphor for a generation raised on show-me-the-money Thatcherism. But Thatcher-era gangsters, like Bob Hoskins playing Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, were hardly role models; indeed, Arthur and Terry were figures of fun in Minder. Was it really only twenty years ago that close-cropped hairdos and glottal cursing were the mark of football hooligans and neo-nazi yobbos, embarrassing rather than aspirational?
The current stampede of luvvies, footballers, pop stars, and stand-up comics into gangster roles resembles a giant casting call for a remake of Bugsy Malone. That film was Alan Parker’s way of saying all this American gangster bluster and violence was, well, childish. Two decades on, men WANT to be called lads and girlie has replaced Greer-y in what British wanabees wanna be.
This might be acceptable were it sui generis. Sadly, it‘s actually nothing more than an endless remake of Quentin Tarantino. If Tarantino hadn’t shown that a mix of the stylish language and imagery from decades of gangster movies could transform such unlikely figures as John Travolta, Steve Buscemi, or even himself into action heroes, it’s unlikely Britain would have ever spawned any of these Reservoir Lads films. After all, it was all Nick Hornby could do to reclaim football for upper middle-class boys a full decade after American baby-boomers had indulged their retro fantasies with fantasy baseball (a craze which spawned such films as Eight Men Out, Major League, and Bull Durham).
Peter Medak’s The Krays began the British movie equivalent, fantasy gangland. In Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, public-school old boy Guy Ritchie established his own street cred by letting Vinnie Jones do his mugging on camera. The hooligans’ football idol became a minor movie star, a real hard man made good. Only Vinnie's hardman rep was made in a sport where tugging shirts is considered tough-guy behaviour, and his own signature act involved caressing Gazza's goolies during a match. But the resurgence in football's popularity, off the back of upper-middle class boys like Hornby rediscovering their childhood fields of dreams, is exactly the same as the more recent surge in gangster films. Jones was the perfect bridge between the two, making it easy for Vinnie to become everyone’s favourite diamond geezer made good. Then, following Vinnie down the tunnel came all sorts of close-cropped singers parading their Oxbridge idea of East-End toughness.
This repositioning of middle-class pop stars as working class tough guys reached its apotheosis in Simon Monjack’s Two Days, Nine Lives, which I saw in a preview and which, months or years later, was flushed down the drain of straight-to-video release. Ostensibly a sensitive tale of nine people experiencing Another 48 Hours of therapy in a posh drug clinic, it couldn't resist larding itself with gangster baggage. In fact, in scenes later cut from the film, Clive the therapist was shown in his previous career, committing shotgun robberies of bingo halls (!) and shooting a cashier whom he crippled. As played by Ralph Arliss, this left him so traumatised he still dressed in a 70s timewarp, like Kevin Keegan guesting in The Sweeney.
Luke Goss starred as Saul, pop music producer with a drug problem. Hair cropped, designer needle tracks covered with a designer scarf, and spitting lines between clenched teeth, Goss is all head-butting aggression, which in the context of psychotherapy gives ‘nutter’ a whole new meaning. He expresses rage by quivering like Daffy Duck trying to pronounce ‘preposterous’. Aggression means a posturing head extended to form a human question-mark, like Frank Gorshin playing the Riddler in the Batman TV show. When he plays scenes with the adoring Danny (Jonathan Bruun, whose name seems to come from the same imaginary country as Haagen-Daaz) they’re like Beavis and Headbutt. If all this seems out of place in a would-be sensitive film, Two Days is at least right in suggesting these geezers need therapy. A better title might have been Barrels, Docs, and Crack Smoking Luvvies.
So why does lad culture need so desperately to appear tough? What do they fear might shatter their fragile macho facade? Why does Luke Goss pronounce Bros “bras”? What is it that really makes British hardmen hard?
For the answer, we turn to Sexy Beast, the most stylish of this current gangster cycle. Because beneath its glossy surface, the kind of style Gore Vidal called “forty commercials looking for a product”, Sexy Beast is really about a gangster’s wish to escape the relentless rage of repressed homosexuality, and be left alone to indulge his feminine nature.
For British hardmen, the all-purpose endearment and ultimate insult of choice is ‘cunt’, equating a man with the passive sexuality of the female organ. Contrast this to any episode of The Sopranos, where the equivalent term is ‘you fuck’ or affectionately, ‘you fat fuck’. The American gangster looks at his colleague as a fellow predator in the sexual jungle, not as an obscure object of desire. After all, where Americans call their male friends ‘buddy’, ‘pal’, or ‘home-boy’ the British Lad’s term is ‘mate’, which to everyone else in the world (except Aussies) connotes two creatures of opposite genders getting it on. “This is my mate” should mean Tarzan has found Jane, not Michael Portillo. It's not so much James Bond as male bond.
Again, a generation of Brits plays craven homage to Tarantino. This time, it’s the Tarantino who, in the otherwise forgettable Sleep With Me, delivered a memorable deconstruction of Top Gun, read as an allegory in which the pilots led by Ice Man try to pull Maverick over to ‘the gay side’, where he can learn exactly what those heat seeking sidewinder missiles finding your flaming red exhaust chute actually symbolise. In Sexy Beast, Ray Winstone has already gone over to the gay side, and his former mates are trying to pull him back to the straight side, while revealing their own repressed desires.
The film opens with a suntan-oiled body glistening in the Spanish sun, like a Christmas turkey basting in a roasting pan. In his bikini, bedecked in gold jewellery (gangsters quickly adopt female rules of display), we can’t tell at first whether Ray Winstone is male or female. We see he’s male when he applies ice cubes to his balls, a symbolic scrotum-shrivelling de-manning. His name is Gary Dove. He’s a retired gangster, growing, as his name suggests, peaceful and soft. His friends call him “Gal”. I didn’t say this was going to be subtle.
As the camera eyes lasciviously the young Spanish pool boy, Gal contemplates his good life, like Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams on a Moroccan vacation checking out young Arabs. A giant testicle of a boulder flies over his head, landing in the pool, drenching him in an explosion of liquid, enough to unfreeze anyone’s cojones. It’s an Omen, because big balls Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) soon arrives, intending to pull Gal back to London for a big job. Logan has a permanent hard on for the world (Logan equals “log on”, geddit?). The epitome of designer tough, after literally marking his territory (he deliberately misses the loo while pissing), he actually practices tough guy faces in the mirror, method actor given a scene stolen from Travis Bickle. We soon learn that Logan and Jackie, the wife of Gal’s mate H, were once an item, until Jackie put a finger up his bum during sex. This is wrong, Don tells Gal, and worse, he liked it.
Dumped by Don, Jackie then married H, who’s presumably unflustered by digital probes (Preparation H is, after all, a popular haemorrhoid remedy). Don’t laugh. Remember, the guys who wrote Sexy Beast also wrote Gangster No. 1, an exercise in models playing gangsters, and if we think about what children sometimes call their bodily functions we can only be glad they don’t make a sequel called Gangster No. 2, which is basically what reviewers should have called Gangster No 1.
Don also reveals that Gal’s wife Dee Dee used to be a porn actress. This makes sense, since it gives her extensive experience of pretend sex with disinterested men. Married to a porn star, with (Prep) H for a mate, and far from Britain, Gal is presumably free to indulge in anal stimulation and eye pool boys to his fat heart’s content.
But this won’t do for Don, who is so upset at revealing his inner, so to speak, self, that he breaks his tough guy routine, and flees to the airport. Finally regaining his composure, he gets himself removed from the flight and blackmails the airline into letting him go by claiming a steward touched him up, doing a very convincing impersonation of a homophobe. Returning to Gal, he gets killed by Dee Dee, the woman forced to brandish the inevitable lock stock and phallic smoking barrel. Adding insult to fatal injury, Don gets buried in the hole left in the swimming pool by the giant testicle.
Dee Dee’s big swinging shotgun dick contradicts the analysis of gangster movies offered in Love, Honour, and Obey, a cross between a gangster film and Four Weddings And A Funeral which marks, arguably, the nadir (to date) of this British cycle. Ray Winstone in this one found himself among an absurd cast of would-be tough guys like Jude Law and Rhys Ifans, and luvvie molls Sadie Frost and Denise Van Outen. As one so-called hardman explains: “Women fuck it up in the end,” no double entendres intended, but all of them understood. L,H, & O also featured Kathy Burke dragging Ray Durdis’ impotent gangster to sex therapy. You couldn't make it up, except they did!
Back in Sexy Beast Spain, despite DeeDee’s taking care of business, Gal still must return to London. The big caper has been organised by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, who's the most convincing thing in the film), in elaborate revenge for being buggered by bank chairman Harry at some Cliveden-style society orgy. Harry is played by James Fox, who’s wandered in from a remake of Performance, and we all know what that signifies. And did you happen to notice that the working class crime lord so offended by the upper class’ polymorphous perversion is named Teddy Bass, or Teddy Be Ass. I warned you.
How do Teddy Be Ass’ villains revenge themselves on gay Harry? They assemble, naked in a Turkish bath. Do I need to draw you a picture? In case I do, they penetrate the backside of the bank with a giant dildo of a power drill, shades of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an American buddy picture which wore its sexual role reversals on the sleeves of the dress Jeff Bridges had to wear. When Teddy B. Ass's boys break through into the vault, it releases a huge spurt of water. The naked gangsters swim up the tube and grab Harry’s jewels. Gal stuffs some earrings for DeeDee into his bikini, thus providing himself with the set of the family jewels he lacks. Teddy, having raped Harry’s vault, then shoots Harry in a needless bit of literal overkill. He drops Gal at a bus stop, paying him a tenner like a used hooker, knowing the secret of his shame is safe with a Gal. It’s a buddy movie gone haywire. Having, like Teddy, proved he’s NOT homosexual, Gal can now return to Spain, give DeeDee the family jewels, and enjoy a eunuch's retirement, accepting his femininity, frolicking on top of Don’s body in his pool.
Far-fetched? Director Jonathan Glazer claimed the eponymous Sexy Beast was money, but I think he was having us on. The Guardian’s critic Jonathan Romney, without a hint of irony, described Sexy Beast avoiding “the usual gangster geezerisms”. He noted that “above one hard man there is another, then another, then another….”, then pointed out Ian McShane as Teddy Bass played the ultimate man on top, “with a curiously prissy walk”. He thought Glazer might be “trying to cram too much in”. Some of us might suggest that’s the whole point. As I said before: DO I HAVE TO DRAW YOU A PICTURE?