Review: “44 Inch Chest.”

Ray Winstone is an actor of substantial presence. With brutish physicality and a menacingly gruff voice, he often plays tough characters one should never cross. His work in 44 Inch Chest comes as a bit of a surprise, as he’s a lovelorn mess for most of its running time. Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the writing team behind Sexy Beast, are still interested in the extremes of masculine behavior. Whereas their screenwriting debut observed the rage of a singularly nasty character, 44 Inch Chest considers how cockney gangsters might opine on friendship, pride, love, and revenge. Even with an unbelievably badass cast, it sometimes feels as if the action would be a better fit for the stage. And while the conclusion drags, there are scenes of ferocious intensity that’ll delight anyone who likes their dialogue terse, funny, and profane.

In their darkest moment, I suspect recently cuckolded men often conjure a fantasy similar to the movie’s plot. Colin (Winstone) is practically catatonic after his wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) announces she met another guy. Understandably devastated, Colin musters the energy to call Archie (Tom Wilkinson), a close friend who immediately springs into action. With the help of Mal (Stephen Dillane) and Peanut (John Hurt), Archie nabs the philanderer and locks him in a wardrobe. Later the suave Meredith (Ian McShane) joins the party. Together Colin’s four friends coax him out of his despondent state, and soon discuss how to handle loverboy best. First there’s unanimous consensus he must die, but when Colin is left in a room with him, mercy becomes a distinct possibility.

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With relatively little onscreen violence, director Malcolm Venville relies heavily on the verbal dexterity of his cast.  The long middle section, in which five guys converse in an empty room, is talky but never boring. Colin and his friends are electrifying to watch, with Ian McShane as the clear standout. He turns Meredith into a velvet-tongued gay man who values profound detachment and unblinking vengeance. Seemingly he’s the least invested in Colin’s situation, yet his matter-of-fact tone aids Colin when he’s at his most panic-stricken. It follows Archie and the others lack Meredith’s charm. Their camaraderie is nonetheless infectious, especially as these friends find creative ways to verbally abuse one another.

It’s entertaining, yes, but the crude language serves a deeper purpose. These men are tough to the core, and f-bombs are the only way to describe their attitude to Colin’s unfortunate situation. When Colin discusses the nature of love to the man who slept with his wife, there is bizarre eloquence in his speech, even when Winstone is ready to explode. Venville and his screenwriters are unafraid of machismo’s ugly side, so we know Colin is capable of monstrous behavior. There are dire consequences to breaking a violent man’s heart, a lesson Liz learns all too well. Juxtaposing friendship with violence is hardly a new theme, yet with a cast as good as this, I don’t mind the lack of original insight.

44 Inch Chest is at its best when we’re unsure what Colin will do next. It’s all the more enthralling when Peanut and Mal hilariously make the case for bloodshed. Much to my chagrin, Colin arrives at his decision with plenty of time to spare, so the writers fill the remainder with tacked-on hallucinatory scenes. And because the conclusion is foregone, there is little dramatic tension in the last half hour. These shortcomings are enough to deter many from purchasing a ticket. But for those of you who savor the opportunity to watch well-dressed Brits swill booze and bark nasty four-letter-words (I know you’re out there), you’ll have a fucking great time.