If you like early Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie films and especially if you liked "Sexy Beast," then you'll love "44 Inch Chest." The film, which is from the writer's of "Sexy Beast" and features two of its stars, Ray Winstone and Ian McShane is an explosive and powerful British gangster movie. It possess the urgency and excitement of a film like "Reservoir Dogs" while still capturing the essence of that film's character dialogue and mixing it with the specific British underworld feel of a movie like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." The five British actors featured in this film are all excellent here and at the top of their game. Their characters are well flushed out and all the actors play off each other brilliantly. The ensemble cast consists of such fine veteran actors as Ray Winstone ("The Departed"), Ian McShane ("Deadwood"), Oscar Nominee Tom Wilkinson ("Batman Begins"), John Hurt ("Alien") and Stephen Dillane ("Welcome To Sarajevo"). Each actor is really given the opportunity to let his character breathe and grow throughout the film, which is quite refreshing. What follows is a fascinating look at love, heartbreak, rage, friendship and the seedy British underworld.
The film features one of the best opening scenes I've seen in a movie in a long time. It perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the film and gets you ready for what you are about to witness, a character study of five very different and interesting men. We open on Colin who is played absolutely brilliantly by Ray Winstone. Colin is heartbroken, lying on the floor of his house paralyzed, which has been destroyed; seemingly by him in a fit of rage. Blasting through the house on a constant loop is the '1970s Air Supply hit "Without You," trust me you'd recognize it if you heard it. In that one moment we not only recognize but also can relate to Colin's devastated heartbreak and loss over his wife leaving him. It's a very funny and clever scene. Soon Colin's Gangster associates show up to help. They find out from Colin that his wife, played with real class by Joanne Whalley ("Willow") has been cheating on him and has left him for another man. Only wanting to help poor Colin and get him back to his old self, they kidnap the lover and beat the life out of him in a safe house. Now Colin has to face the man who his wife now loves and decide if he is going to kill him or not with his friends encouraging him to do the latter.
However, the story unfolds in flashbacks allowing us to get to know our characters a little better. Archie (Wilkinson) is a likable, honorable man who cares for his elderly Mother, when not committing crimes with his cohorts. Meredith (McShane) acts as the leader of the group while their actual leader Colin is temporarily immobilized by his heartbreak. Meredith is also a gambler and unapologetically homosexual, which is something that bothers Hurt's Old Man Peanut. Peanut is the oldest of the group and an "old school" gangster that doesn't care for Meredith's flamboyancy or the discussion of emotions and feelings. He just wants to kill Liz's lover and get back to business as usual. Finally, Dillane plays Mal, the slick-talking, well-dressed member of the group. As the flashbacks continue we see a bit of Colin and Liz's relationship and the fateful moment when she tells him she is leaving him. What is also interesting is a portion of the film where the four men leave Colin alone to do the deed and his mind wanders and begins hallucinating. He thinks that Liz and his friends, who are actually in the hallway, are in the room with him and begins having a discussion with all of them about what to do. With his colleagues expecting blood and his heart demanding revenge, Colin must now face his demons and make a decision. Kill the man who stole his wife or spare the life of the man his wife loves?
The movie is quite refreshing and keeps you guessing throughout the entire film about how the story will unfold next. It's a pretty simple story but it unfolds in such an interesting and unusual way. The script and dialogue is cleverly written and feels very much like a Tarantino film at times, with the clever back-and-forth between the characters. What makes the film work is the character study and the fact that the movie allows you time to get to know these characters and develop opinions about them. I also liked how the film, for the most part takes place in one location, the safe house. It felt a bit like "The Dumb Waiter" in that way, the Robert Altman directed TV movie from the '80s starring John Travolta and based on the classic Harold Pinter play. The explosive energy of these five men and the violence that they are prepared to do almost boils over in this small room and it makes for exciting entertainment. My only complaint about the film is that all the tension that builds does become a bit of a let down in the final moments and could be described as anticlimactic, however it hardly diminishes the power of the piece as a whole.
Director Malcolm Venville does an excellent job of orchestrating the ensemble of talented actors working off of a brilliant script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto. But it is really the performances of the amazing actors that make this film work. Wilkinson is as solid as ever in his role as Archie and communicates his part perfectly. Hurt is wonderfully funny as Old Man Peanut and has some great interaction with McShane. In fact, McShane is delightful to watch and you can almost see the glee in the actor's eyes has he takes a big swing at this larger than life man. I also found Dillane fascinating to watch, as he was able to impress a certain style to his role of Mal, which illuminated his part. But it is the powerhouse performance of the film's lead, Winstone that really makes the film a must-see. From the opening frame you feel his pain while never doubting for a moment that he was capable of some terrible things. While the film is certainly on the same par as "Sexy Beast" it may loose in a one-on-one contest with its predecessor only because "Beast" benefited from originality. We've seen this story before regardless of how well it is executed or how original the characters might be. None-the-less, 44 Inch Chest is a fascinating, well written, well acted, character study that will keep you entertained from the first frame of the film all the way to the last.