Paramount+'s 'Sexy Beast' Prequel Utterly Misses the Mark

Emun Elliott, Stanley Morgan and James McArdle in "Sexy Beast"

Emun Elliott, Stanley Morgan and James McArdle in "Sexy Beast"

(Photo: Matt Towers/Paramount+.)

The 2000 British classic Sexy Beast is technically a gangster film, a crime drama, and a heist flick, but Jonathan Glazer’s trail-blazing debut is more interested in being something else entirely. Living out his retirement in peaceful British expat bliss in Spain, ex-criminal Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is approached by the sociopathic, neurodivergent-coded Don (an Oscar-nominated Ben Kingsley), an old friend who wants to lure him back to England for one last job. Gal refuses, and what follows is a long and tortuous duel with the devil, with Don berating his former associate with abuse, manipulation, and humiliation to get what he wants. It’s less a crime movie and more a mythic tale of never escaping your violent past and being haunted by a vengeful wraith.

Paramount+’s Sexy Beast, a prequel series detailing the London-based criminal enterprises of a younger Gal (James McArdle) and Don (Emun Elliott), has none of the style, restraint, or impact of the film it’s inexplicably telling an eight-episode 1990s origin story to. Glazer has just been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for his latest film; it’s unlikely that most audiences will get through the Sexy Beast prequel's first episode. Despite some worthy efforts from lone cast members and a sincere but misguided attempt to grapple with the world Gal felt pushed to leave behind, Sexy Beast is as disposable as British crime sagas can get.

You don’t need to know the ins and outs of the original Sexy Beast to enjoy this prequel, but the problem with showrunner/director Michael Caleo’s series is that if you love Glazer’s Sexy Beast, you’ll hate this show for missing what was appealing about the film. Equally, if you don’t know anything about Glazer’s original, you’ll fail to be impressed by Caleo’s limp and overlong crime story. Gal is a competent but small-time crook whose illegitimate enterprises are thus far unnoticed by his loved ones, including fiance Marjorie (Eliza Bennett) and rave-fiend younger sister Ann Marie (Clea Martin).

Stephen Moyer as Teddy Bass emerges from the loo in Sexy Beast Season 1

Stephen Moyer as Teddy Bass in Sexy Beast Season 1

Sanne Gault/Paramount+

Other than Gal and Don, there are a handful of other returning/recast characters – including Gal’s future wife DeeDee (Sarah Greene), a pornographic actress who feels the strain of ‘ard men limiting her agency, and Teddy Bass (Stephen Moyer), a sadistic crime boss looking to territorially expand (these parts were played by Amanda Redman and Ian McShane in the original). Dee fares better than others; her pushback against biker boyfriends and abusive bosses – not to mention a surprisingly soft affair she strikes up with Gal – brushes her up against family mistreatment that feels, at the very least, somewhat raw and affecting.

This emotional sincerity also bolsters Don as a character: despite the writing often pushing Elliott towards a broad and simplistic rendition of an archetype defined by Kingsley’s (again, Oscar-nominated!) performance, it’s balanced by the moments where we gain insight into the complications of Don’s interior world. Having your worst traumatic instincts encouraged by the people around you, only for them to shun and shame you for being socially ill-equipped, is a distressing experience that Elliott depicts admirably. 

The moments where the directors hone in on Don’s fear, sincere love, and genuine desire to belong feel more in tune with the subversive elements of Glazer’s original film. It probably helps that the best actor in the show – Tamsin Grieg, playing Don’s tough arcade-owning sister Cecilia – exclusively shares scenes with Elliott. The only problem is that these touches would be welcome for literally any other fictional character than Don Logan, who does not need a traumatic, empathetic backstory – he’s a violent spirit tormenting Gal from the inside as much as the outside.

Sarah Greene as Dee Dee Harrison at the club in Sexy Beast Season 1

Sarah Greene as Dee Dee Harrison in Sexy Beast Season 1

Sanne Gault/Paramount+

As Gal, McArdle is more left out to dry. He’s a fine actor, but the series is too complacent about how much it psychologically probes its main character – which was the entire dramatic thrust of the film it’s based on. When Sexy Beast does take our leading duo to Spain, many gestures are made at dramatic complexity – it’s the type of self-contained, flashy location mid-season episode that gets loads of praise for being character-driven and gripping in prestigious shows. Sexy Beast knows it should have one of these episodes but has no idea how to make it good.

There are other deep-set problems. Sexy Beast makes a baffling and unpleasant habit of using male-on-male sexual violence for humor, shock value, or shorthand for being a twisted person. Whole characters, like up-and-coming gangster Freddie McGraw crossing Terry’s path, get picked up and dropped whenever the show feels like it, rendering them as insubstantial padding to flesh out episodes to a normal length. But more than anything, Sexy Beast never quite articulates what the point of its existence is and doesn’t make a convincing case to watch unrelated from the thematically and stylistically superior original.

Sexy Beast debuts with three episodes on Thursday, January 25, 2024, on Paramount+, with one episode a week to follow.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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