Consisting largely of five angry blokes spewing hate-laced profanity and equating manliness with brute revenge as they determine the fate of a kidnap victim who has slept with the wife of one of them, “44 Inch Chest” aims to be both a gritty psychodrama and a dark comedy about what defines masculinity. Thanks to a sensational cast, it delivers some impressive sizzle on both fronts.
But rocky storytelling and a load of verbal brutality at the expense of nuance or deeper bang cause it to lose its grip on us.
Suggesting a mix of Mamet, Tarantino and cockney gangster flicks, this is a film in which foul-mouthed keyed-up gab figures big in the dramatic thrust. The screenwriters are Louis Mellis and David Scinto, of “Sexy Beast” fame, delivering thinner but still semi-inspired material. Malcolm Venville, a newcomer, is the director and chief culprit.
Colin (Ray Winstone, “Sexy Beast”), a middle-aged Londoner, explodes violently, then collapses into panic, when longtime wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) informs him she’s leaving him for a young Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud).
Too devastated to emerge from the floor, Colin phones supportive mate Archie (Tom Wilkinson). Archie calls the whole gang – including dapper, smarmy Mal (Stephen Dillane), smooth, gay Meredith (Ian McShane), and vitriolically bigoted Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) – together to consider Colin’s crisis.
Liz’s “loverboy” should die, the men determine, and Colin, they say, can reaffirm his own manhood by killing him. They kidnap and brutalize “Loverboy,” tie him up, and leave Colin alone with him.
Will Colin do the deed?
At first, as the men seethe and demonstrate their warped camaraderie, the film appears as if it might develop into a wicked satire or a satisfactory psychothriller about the male ego.
As Venville alternates between, in one room, Colin’s will-he-or- won’t-he encounter with “Loverboy” and, in an adjacent space, the expletive-packed discourse (much of it woman-bashing) of the other men, he further fractures the focus by adding flashback and fantasy sequences. That weakens the suspense, offering little insight to explain these unembraceable men’s rage, profanity and misogyny.
This leaves us with, simply, mesmerizing bits showcasing some of Britain’s best actors.
Winstone, center stage, delivers a terrific fusion of male heartbreak and aggression. Wilkinson, whose Archie is a, relatively speaking, gentle peacemaker who lives with his elderly mum, also merits top mention.
44 Inch Chest: Two and a half stars
Starring Ray Winstone, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane
Written by Louis Mellis, David Scinto
Directed by Malcolm Venville
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes