In the London crime drama 44 Inch Chest, a group of cockney gangsters viciously beat and abuse a civilian victim, but that brutal treatment is nothing compared to their violence against the English language. Like baying hounds, the mobsters snap profanities at each other, and the film doubtless sets a record in using the word that rhymes with “shunt.” Rage seems to course through English mob films compared to their U.S. counterparts, maybe because on this side of the Atlantic, gangland dramas provide metaphors for the promise of the American dream, however illusory. England’s screen gangsters may gain riches through their larcenous means, but they’re still stuck in a once-great former empire.
44 Inch Chest reunites Sexy Beast screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto with the 2000 film’s co-stars, Ray Winstone and Ian McShane. Sexy Beast featured a volcanic performance by Ben Kingsley as the world’s angriest criminal, plus a memorably bizarre underwater heist at the finale. In comparison, 44 Inch Chest lacks a narrative motor and a destination, and its two-fisted critique of masculine behavior eventually sputters to a halt.
The opening scene finds hitman Colin Diamond (Winstone) collapsed in his darkened, demolished living room, while Harry Nilsson’s profoundly cheesy “Without You” warbles on the soundtrack. The musical choice is too on-the-nose, given that Colin has been cuckolded by his wife. His mates enable his revenge by stowing a kidnap victim in the wardrobe of a decaying flat, where most of the film takes place as heartbroken Colin struggles to “man up.”
For a while, 44 Inch Chest revels in the spectacle of character actors feasting on the script’s peppery dialogue. The cast includes McShane as a debonair gay gangster, Tom Wilkinson as a mild-mannered “nice” thug, Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson on HBO’s “John Adams”) as a brash young Turk, and John Hurt as a wizened wiseguy who’s like a corpse too pissed off to stay in his grave. At first, their BS stories and volleying insults provide bracing entertainment, with Dillane giving his role ample swagger to measure up to his better-known co-stars.
Colin’s identity crisis following his lost love lends 44 Inch Chest a unique perspective on what defines manhood, like Tony Soprano in Dr. Melfi’s office. Unfortunately, the filmmakers offer little depth of insight, and resort to padding the story with flashbacks, dream scenes and even clips from Victor Mature’s Samson and Delilah. Though the film comes on like a rousing, raucous gangland reunion, 44 Inch Chest ultimately leaves viewers feeling deflated.
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