Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gangster Theatre: 44 Inch Chest (2009)

Malcolm Venville’s directorial debut 44 Inch Chest plays like a 70s British gangster movie that’s been converted into a stage play. Save for the opening scenes and a few flashbacks, the film takes place almost entirely in a rotting building on the wrong side of London. Spurned car dealer/gangster Colin Diamond and four of his friends have gathered there with the intention of torturing and killing Diamond’s estranged wife’s boyfriend, who they’ve kidnapped from a posh downtown restaurant and stuffed in a wardrobe. But the overemotional Colin, still reeling from being dumped by the love of his life, is hesitant to do the deed, and needs some psyching up from his pals. This sets the stage for some of the most delightfully profane criminal shop talk since Sexy Beast (which, as it so happens, was written by the same duo--Louis Mellis and David Scinto), all of it delivered by an all star cast of British talent including Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane and John Hurt.

Like the best of David Mamet’s work, the high points of watching 44 Inch Chest (the title is never explained, but it somehow just feels right) all stem from seeing these great actors deliver such powerful language. Part of what made Sexy Beast such a perverse joy to watch was the way Ben Kingsley was able to wield dialogue like a weapon, spitting out insults and expletives like they could make a visceral, physical impact. Mellis and Scinto achieve a similar feat here, especially thanks to Dillane and Hurt, both of whom really seem to be enjoying themselves as the two more unbalanced members of the crew, Mal and Old Man Peanut. Wilkinson plays Archie, the straight and narrow of the group, while the always wonderful McShane is slyly funny as Meredith, a gay high roller with an ultra-cool demeanor and impeccable sense of style.

These characters all fall into neatly framed archetypes around the emotionally shattered Colin, who’s played with an endearing desperation by Winstone. In fact, enough of the film takes place in Colin’s head (in flashbacks and fantasy sequences) that it’s tempting to hypothesize that his buddies might not exist it all, but rather work as projections of his own fractured personality. Either way, they all form a great group dynamic, and their rambling dialogue, which tackles everything from Meredith’s sexual proclivities (Peanut makes a point of regularly calling him a sodomite) to the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, ultimately forms one of the more elegant explorations of masculinity that has been offered up at the movies in some time. It’s rare that you get a movie that goes this deep into the emotional and romantic troubles of such hardened characters, and the fact that it’s coming from such an unexpected source makes a lot of the more tender dialogue have that much more of an impact.

This colorful dialogue and excellent grasp of character and theme is no doubt what drew such exceptional talent to this film, and rightfully so. But where 44 Inch Chest suffers is in the way of plot. All the great language and character dynamics can only take you so far--at some point we need to see these people actually do something. Throughout the film I kept thinking about what a wonderful play this story would make: take 5 total badasses, put them on a stage, and let them devour scenery for ninety minutes. Unfortunately this same approach doesn’t work so well on screen. We need to see these characters act on the impulses they set up so elegantly through dialogue, but director Venville never gives them the chance. This decision relegates 44 Inch Chest to being more of a showpiece for great acting than great filmmaking, but given that the acting is so superior it’s enough to keep the movie snappy and somewhat entrancing, even at the same time that it’s all nowhere near as rounded as it should be.

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