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Without Ben Kingsley, the Sexy Beast Prequel Is an Entirely Different Animal

The Oscar winner's energy is impossible to replicate, as is original director Jonathan Glazer’s distinctive flair.
  • Stephen Moyer and Hannah Van Der Westhuysen in Sexy Beast (Photo: Sanne Gault/Paramount+)
    Stephen Moyer and Hannah Van Der Westhuysen in Sexy Beast (Photo: Sanne Gault/Paramount+)

    In the 2000 crime drama Sexy Beast, the laid-back bacchanalian lifestyle of a quartet of middle-aged Brits is rent asunder by the very announcement that an old cohort from their past lives of crime is coming to pay them a visit. The two married couples — Gal and Deedee, and Gal’s best friend Aitch and his wife Jackie — are doing just fine in their respective Spanish villas when Aitch gets a call that Don Logan wants to see them. Upon Aitch sharing this news grimly at dinner one night, the four of them each look uniquely horrified, as if they’ve just learned of the death of a close friend or family member.

    For certain cinephiles, the announcement that Paramount+ was developing a Sexy Beast prequel series was enough to inspire a similarly dismayed reaction. The three-episode premiere of Sexy Beast, out today, is neither enough to assuage a fan’s worst fears nor creatively compelling enough to serve as an argument for its existence.

    Sexy Beast the film is an excellent modern crime thriller; though the script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto feels cut from a similar cloth as the colorfully profane work of Guy Ritchie, its stylistic direction by then debut filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (currently an Oscar frontrunner for the immensely disturbing The Zone of Interest) sets it apart and also feels crisply paced, wrapping up before 90 minutes elapse. But what truly made Sexy Beast stand out is Don Logan, specifically the Oscar-nominated work of Sir Ben Kingsley.

    Though Kingsley’s career was full of plaudits and notable titles, he’d never so thunderously played a villain like Don Logan and proved himself more than up to the task. Logan is a low-level enforcer for mobster Teddy Bass (a pre-Deadwood Ian McShane), and is as forceful and violent as a hail of bullets; he’s visiting Gal on Teddy’s behalf to recruit him for a challenging robbery back in Britain and refuses to take no for an answer. Everything about Logan, from his shaved head and goatee to his crisp clothes to his profane and repetitive patter, makes him an unforgettably gritty character.

    The Sexy Beast prequel series, developed by Michael Caleo, has a lot to live up to in this regard and seems only too willing to push back against expectations. Though James McArdle (as a young Gal) looks very much like a slightly younger Ray Winstone, Emun Elliott looks very little like the Don Logan of the film when he’s introduced, almost deliberately running counter to our memory of Don. Though his penchant for violence and his awkwardness around women remains the same, Don is plagued by a domineering older sister Cecilia (Tamsin Greig), whose pushy style and florid dialogue serves as inspiration for his future self. Three episodes into the eight-episode series, Cecilia is very much a power broker, but one who notably does not get discussed in the film, leading to the presumption that she may not make it out of the series alive.

    Spotting the dialogue-driven references is the most engaging aspect of the Sexy Beast series for anyone who knows the film, since the series only comes to life when indulging in those gags. The general arc of the series attempts to answer questions the film deliberately doesn’t, such as what it is about working in London that drives Gal and Aitch away or how they got tangled up with Teddy (now played by Stephen Moyer) or how Gal and Deedee fell in love.

    The benefit of Sexy Beast the film is that these are not presented as implacable mysteries. Why did Gal and Aitch leave London? The glimpses we get of the older and equally vicious Teddy as well as the sociopathy exhibited by Don are more than enough of an answer. How did Gal and Deedee fall in love? Their relationship is unchallenged by her past as a porn star. Caleo isn’t using that latter part as an excuse for the generous screen time allotted to Deedee attempting to gain agency and power within the world of British porn, but there’s still a sense of unnecessary excess in watching these scenes. We know that this early-90s setting will just lead Gal and Deedee and Aitch (the latter of whom is a B-level supporting player within the series despite his prominence in the film) to sunny Spain.

    Perhaps the most baffling choice so far is the intent to somewhat humanize Don. He’s not quite a misunderstood character as depicted by Elliott, but we’re meant to see in him at times a confused and scared child bullied around in just the right way by Cecilia to ensure that he’s slowly but surely inheriting her massive and terrifying temper. It’s a head-scratching decision because while Kingsley was excellent and deserved that Oscar, his performance isn’t terribly complex in depicting a freakishly relentless murderer. Though there’s a brief moment in the film where Don talks to himself in a mirror and seems to be interrogating some of his bullying choices, it’s less a moment of regret and more him trying to remind himself to be as calm as he is scary (or, as he repeats to himself, someone who can “keep shtum”). Moreover, considering that in the film, Gal and the others all beat Don to death and bury his body underneath a pool, it’s even harder to grasp why we should feel for Don, whose cinematic depiction ranks as one of the nastiest of all time, serving as an onscreen villain whose death is as cathartic for the audience as for the other characters.

    Though Mellis and Scinto are credited here as executive producers, it’s hard not to pinpoint in watching the series exactly what it’s missing: the impossible-to-replicate energy of Kingsley and the equally impossible but distinctive flair that Glazer brought to the director’s chair. Glazer had cut his teeth on music videos (most famously Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity”) and was able to visually spice up simple montages of Gal and Deedee living it up in their villa by turning a standard love scene into a moment in which two larger-than-life characters fool around within the stars themselves. Caleo isn’t just the lead writer here, but directs the first episode among others, and although it’s an unfair bar to clear, his direction is much more standard-issue for modern TV, as opposed to seeming fresh and new. Sexy Beast doesn’t look any different or better than the other countless new series on streaming or premium cable; it looks… fine, if distinctively so.

    The amount of times Caleo’s name crops up in the end credits of the first episode — five, in case you’re curious, for directing, writing the story, writing the teleplay, developing the series, and being an executive producer — calls to mind the man in charge of another cable series derived from a beloved crime drama: Noah Hawley of FX’s Fargo. That series just wrapped its fifth season, and for its flaws, the smartest decision Hawley (and possibly FX executives) ever made was not turning any of the seasons into a full-on prequel regarding a pre-existing character. Though Alison Tolman played a Marge Gunderson-like cop in the series’s first season, she’s not literally playing a younger Marge before the events of the 1996 Coen Brothers classic. Hawley’s no stranger to plenty of Easter-egg references, but was never beholden to sticking with the script by re-creating characters the audience already knew.

    On one hand, Caleo may have the benefit that Sexy Beast the film, though beloved by critics and audiences at the time, is not quite at the same level of success as Fargo was. (Kingsley got the film’s only Oscar nomination, whereas Fargo got seven Oscar nods and won two awards, as one example.) But the flip side is that the title of this show doesn’t belie a story inspired by the film, instead of what’s meant to be the key prequel explaining all sorts of unnecessary details that the film deliberately never dug into.

    Those who know Sexy Beast the film well are not likely to be swayed by what so far feels like a dully protracted look at a handful of characters whose inner lives were never so enigmatic as to inspire fan theories. Those who don’t know the film may only gravitate towards its vaguely period-piece setting if they’re unfamiliar with other modern TV crime dramas that depict violence, drug use, and nudity. It’s not that the pieces of this show can’t be put together to make a compelling series; it’s that digging into the backstory of Sexy Beast only serves to emphasize how wise the film was to avoid that backstory entirely.

    New episodes of Sexy Beast drop Thursdays on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Josh Spiegel is a writer and critic who lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons, and far too many cats. Follow him on Bluesky at @mousterpiece.

    TOPICS: Sexy Beast, Paramount+