There’s a special tradition of nastiness in English gangster films: It’s as if the Brits, given the opportunity to get violent, enjoy spitting with extra relish on their own civility. In Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Malcolm McDowell, as a London kingpin, decides to tamp down an underworld dabbler (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has been strutting around town selling drugs on the side, and the punishment isn’t pretty: McDowell rapes him. An act of ”discipline” that would look only mildly shocking in prison attains a singular brute ugliness.
I don’t want to reveal much more of what happens in ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” except to say that the punishment has an effect even worse than intended. That’s why Clive Owen, as the kid’s older brother, a former gangster who has had some sort of breakdown and has been hiding out in the country for three years, must return to London to set things right. Hodges, whose appetite for sleaze is matched by his insistence on honor among scoundrels, perfected this sort of thing more than 30 years ago in the great Michael Caine thriller ”Get Carter,” and now, at 72, he still knows how to unspool a mystery with a hypnotic pace of sadistic intrigue. There’s a squeamish strain of homophobia in the way that ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” plays out, yet the film is held together by Clive Owen, who spends most of his time on screen hidden beneath matted hair and a scruffy beard but still has more aura than any actor around.