It would be remiss to claim that some of the fine ensemble cast amassed for ’44 Inch Chest’ have something to atone for, given the crimes inflicted upon the gangster genre on this side of the pond during the late ’90s and early ’00s – Ray Winstone in ‘Love, Honour & Obey’ for instance, John Hurt in the dreadful ‘You’re Dead’ or lord forbid, Steven Berkoff in ‘Rancid Aluminium’ – the Tarantino blowback birthed the carefully placed grit of the crime caper movie with all the good bits taken out. Yep, Guy Ritchie’s overrated ‘Lock, Stock…’ did more damage to the UK film industry than good, from opening the floodgates for straight-to-DVD Dyer and Tamar geezer-on-the-run flicks to making people think the MFI Michael Mann-isms of ‘Layer Cake’ were actually anything more than an Arena magazine mashup of every gangster cliché around.
The payback? Guy gets a new lease-of-life after nearly a decade of bombs for helming a Holmes film that’s harmless but no more revolutionary than Barry Levinson’s attempt at a franchise re-up in 1984. The bad guy walked away scott free. The ‘orrible cahnt.
But that cynicism conveniently sidesteps a few fine achievements. Torn from the Primrose Hill set, Winstone’s a versatile actor with range and a formidable presence – given his start in the industry he’s a natural. John Hurt’s performance in 1984’s gangsters abroad masterpiece ‘The Hit’* is sublime, and Berkoff’s turn as George Cornell in 1990’s ‘The Krays’ makes for some of the film’s strongest scenes. Forget the flops – these are top boys. At its best, the British gangster film subverts the narrative norms – think ‘Performance,’ the aforementioned Stephen Frears interpretation and of course, 2000’s ‘Sexy Beast.’ We could all be forgiven for allowing Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece to hit us side-on after so many insufferable homegrown follies. Kingsley was a revelation, but the surprise at Ian McShane’s scope for screen malevolence exposes just how underexposed his under-the-thumb thug role in 1971’s overlooked ‘Villain’** is; all no-nonsense haircuts, razors and car coats.***
Glazer set a precedent, and while shining hopes of life-affirming film like Shane Meadows flounder with mockumentaries and drawn-out train ads, it’s understandable that the trailer for ’44 Inch Chest’ had a starved audience too intelligent to lap up Nick Love’s dough-headed output excited. “From the writers of ‘Sexy Beast” (David Scinto and Louis Mellis) pricked up a few ears, and the sweary character acting veterans and stage titans alike promised something a little more cerebral. So why does it flounder and drool, when the scope for a taut drama is staring you down from the beginning? Because it belongs on a stage.
Commencing with a cuckolded Colin Diamond (Winstone), a presumed “face” rendered blank, crushed by revelations of his wife’s infidelity, leading to a heavy-handed intervention of sorts, some postmodern flashbacking and a kidnap and revenge dilemma, for the most part, it’s a one-room affair, leaving ex-commercial director Malcolm Venville too little room to manoeuvre, and while ‘Sexy Beast’s director of photography Dan Landin’s cinematography is suitably hued and sleazy with an appropriately dreamlike quality, the plot admirably evades the straightforward crash-bang wallop of similar pictures, it offers little more than a space for the obscenity-laced dialogue to let loose. Even the Angelo Badalamenti score is, for the most part, lost amid the flying saliva.
While the emphasis is “Fackin’ do ‘im!” you’ve got your different levels of thug – Hurt’s Old Man Peanut carries a righteousness that’s got him foaming at the mouth, Tom Wilkinson; a terrifyingly calm businessman with fearsome friends in the otherwise patchy ‘Essex Boys’ switches from mummy’s boy to a far colder character as Archie, and Ian McShane’s Meredith is a less menacing version of his Teddy Bass, down to the sexual orientation. All whispering in Colin’s ear in the vein of a more one-sided cartoon angel/devil shoulder situation. That’s not where the heavy-handed anguish ends either.
While Glazer made the boulder near-miss and underwater heist seem fantastical through sheer flair, the lapse into Colin’s fractured psyche here feels forced, twisting perceptions rather than involving the audience in anything particularly engrossing. Jump-cutting Hurt’s stab at BAFTA glory with DeMille’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ is tricksy and uninvolving too. Just gathering reliable performers and turning them loose isn’t enough.
As a study of simmering testosterone, wounded pride and physical punches pulled at the last second, Winstone’s Colin is a career-best turn, which somehow makes the film worth your ninety minutes. In turns blubbering, sympathetic, delusional, cowardly and curiously romantic, he makes an unlikely advocate for true love, but there’s a wounded soul open for inspection right here. Neil LaBute would’ve fuckstarted the central conceit into a must-see, and while this story of black-eyed redemption might wilfully encapsulate Colin’s empty husk of a physical form in its overall execution, for once, the lack of any anticipated geezerdom isn’t necessarily something to celebrate.
Expect a character piece, and you’ll leave satisfied, even if the well-executed opening scenes of mundane homelife and pet ownership are largely squandered – if savagery of a physical rather than psychological kind is your bag, and it’s alluded to in the promotional materials, you’ll go to bed hungry.
*‘The Hit’ gets overlooked too often. Terence Stamp, John Hurt and early Tim Roth is a perfect trio, the underlying sense of threat and a knack for the theatrical perfectly channelled without compromising realism makes this one of the greats. Maybe some idiot will decide to remake it, crowing about the accuracy of the sportswear on show.
**‘Villain’ is old school spilled claret, sliced faces, sawn-off shooters, and best of all it’s executed at point-blank range in deadly seriousness. Richard Burton has the physical presence, but that accent slips ever now an again. It deserves to be held just beneath ‘Get Carter’ in the UK crime pantheon. The script is solid and steeped in brutality.
***Car coats might be the definitive cut for a coat. APC, Gloverall and best of all, Stansfield’s interpretations are solid. They’re ideal for getaway driving – hence their ubiquity in films like ‘Villain.’ The ability for the torso to move in a car seat is part of the garment’s consideration. At their best, they’re a thigh-length, deep pocketed plan-c of the coat world – too often the thickness lets them down for truly cold conditions.