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44 Inch Chest

Close Quarters

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

44 Inch Chest, a gangster drama written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (Sexy Beast) and directed by Malcolm Venville, could be easily retitled Five Men and an Armoire.

A mostly single-set drama interwoven with the occasional flashback, dream, or reverie, 44 Inch Chest is primarily an actors’ showcase. The talented thespians in question — British actors well known to American audiences — are given ample opportunity to bite into Mellis and Scinto’s profanity-laced dialogue while essaying different aspects of conflicted masculinity. Ultimately undermined by an underwhelming third-act that fizzles rather than soars, 44 Inch Chest is still a worthwhile moviegoing experience, especially if you recall Sexy Beast’s surreal, profane theatrics with fondness or if you’re a fan of 44 Inch Chest’s cast.

44 Inch Chest centers on Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone), a middle-aged gangster devastated by the end of his marriage to Liz (Joanne Whalley), his wife of 21 years. Liz calmly informs him that their marriage is over and that she’s found someone else. Colin’s reaction covers a gamut of emotions and behaviors, from denial to pleading and, ultimately, anger.

In a scene we don’t see until later in the film, Colin gets Liz to disclose the name of her new boyfriend. Along with his cronies, Archie (Tom Wilkinson), a middle-aged bachelor who still lives with his mother; Meredith (Ian McShane), a suave gambler; Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), a cranky, curmudgeonly old-school type who sees violence as the last and often the first resort to every problem; and Mal (Stephen Dillane), the youngest and most callow member of the group, Colin kidnaps Liz’s boyfriend and takes him to a half-finished, half-furnished building where most of the events in the film occur.

44 Inch Chest unfolds over a single night as a heart-broken, rage-filled Colin decides what to do with Liz’s boyfriend (Melvil Poupaud), identified only as “Loverboy” by the other characters (and the credits).

Old Man Peanut treats Colin with contempt for his multiple displays of weakness. Men don’t cry in Peanut’s world, they get even with whoever caused them physical or emotional pain. Meredith is on the outside looking in; he doesn’t believe in emotional entanglements. Archie seems the most rational, but he’s just as willing to let Colin kill Loverboy as the others are. Together, they see a wrong and one and only one way to right that wrong — torturing Loverboy first, killing him second. As Colin works his way through the five stages of grief, Loverboy’s life hangs in the balance.

As a study in British masculinity, the characters in 44 Inch Chest fall into the usual categories. Sharply defined character types and rapid-fire, profanity-laced dialogue — with the exception of the dialogue-less Loverboy — give the actors plenty of room to show off their talent and range, but ultimately 44 Inch Chest is nothing more than just that: an actors’ showcase.

First-time director Malcolm Venville, constricted by the single-set premise, handles the dialogue scenes competently, but doesn’t do anything to give 44 Inch Chest visual interest. He’s also let down by an underwritten, dialogue-driven script that’s better suited to the theater than a barely ninety-minute film.