Oscar nominated character actor Tom Wilkinson makes a pretty candid confession in the behind-the-scenes bonus material of 44 Inch Chest by admitting that he initially turned the movie down before realizing that he couldn't get the script out of his head.
And it turns out he was right on both accounts as the screenplay is profanely compelling, rivaling Mamet in its vulgar monologues that build and build to Shakespearean proportion. Unfortunately however, Wilkinson's earliest instincts turned out to be right as well as just because something is interesting on paper, it isn't guaranteed that the final result will equal a good film.
Just one of five other British heavyweight actors ready to knock the dialogue out of the park, the classically stylized – essentially filmed version of a two-act play – centers on the way that a group of past their prime, old school thugs choose to handle the news that the beloved wife of Colin (Ray Winstone) has betrayed their twenty plus marriage and children by fooling around with a dishy young Frenchman for whom she's fallen.
If Wilkinson is underused then Colin's wife (played by Joanne Whalley) is thoroughly wasted, serving as the inciting incident for the rest of the “action” which in 44 Inch Chest means angrier talking and some brutal violence as well.
Although Whalley is a wreck and even goes through the glass sliding door at her place, in this primal test of masculinity and what that term means to Colin and his mates, the Frenchman dubbed "Loverboy" throughout is abducted and restrained to a chair as both he and we wonder just if, when and whom will be pulling the trigger.
Purposely staged like a play using a main primary location of the safe house the man's tied up at as the setting for most of the movie's 94 minute running time, Chest is shot on a single camera with a lot of single medium and close shots to punctuate the words tumbling out of the men's mouths as all five together allegorically seem to comprise – as the filmmakers said – five sides of one individual man.
While Winstone's Colin is guilty of loving too much, there isn't too much that John Hurt's Old Man Peanut loves at all with archaic viewpoints on gender and life in general. Wilkinson balances out Peanut as the tender one, living with his mother and there for moral support and to look after the rest which is a nice play against stereotype as the gay Meredith (Ian McShane) seems to be cool, calculating and commitment phobic whereas the maladjusted Mal (Stephen Dillane) is the group's man of action, kidnapping a bloke here and ready to shoot him for Colin if need be.
Written especially for Ray Winstone by Sexy Beast scribes Louis Mellis and David Scinto, while Winstone is ideal for the material and was attached from the very beginning as the idea was tossed around all the way back on Sexy Beast, this one seems to suffer from the same lack of follow-through that the far superior Beast did as the men are all hopped up on testosterone and literally have nothing to do except walk from one room to the next.
Given the three week rehearsal period, the staginess of it is even more on display as the meticulous direction from Malcolm Venville makes it feel like a claustrophobic waiting room where the villains from films by Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Martin Scorsese all gather to wait for their big moment when they try not to reinvent the wheel but instead the many, many uses of the f-bomb.
With the consummate cast and a tightly conceptualized screenplay that ensures we're dealing with five very unique individuals, Chest luckily has enough going for it to keep you intrigued. Still in the end, you realize that your earliest instinct to just turn it down and tune out irregardless of the screenplay and the fact that Wilkinson ultimately said yes was the right move all along.
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