By Michael Gray
It takes a brave director to tackle a film genre already exhausted by a generation of Tarantino imitators — the crime caper gone wrong, botched by small-time crooks, in over their heads with the big boys — and try to beat some life into it. And it takes a talented one to pull it off with the panache that 30-year-old Londoner Guy Ritchie exudes so effortlessly in his debut feature, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."
Ritchie’s film is a crime story framed as a laddish comedy, with chunks of heist thriller folded into the mix. Ritchie also wrote the manic screenplay, a full-contact loaf in the face densely populated with nasty types involved in drugs, pornography, money lending and gambling. His locale is London’s tough, seedy East End, his dialogue is sharp and hip, and his cast of cockney thugs and wideboys is spot-on from start to finish.
Ritchie’s lineup of characters runs the length of the criminal food chain. At the top end is gang boss Hatchet Harry, played by P.H. Moriarty, a pornographer, high-stakes card player and connoisseur of antique firearms. At the bottom end are two freelance Scouser lugs who are hired by Harry’s enormous henchman, Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), to steal a pair of ancient shooters from the gun cabinet of a stately home. In between, Ritchie pitches a quartet of languid public school bush chemists, growing powerful weed in their warehouse ganja farm and making sizable cash from the sale of their produce, which they casually store in shoe boxes about the place; a gang of inept thugs who hatch a plot to steal their profits, and a psychotic black guy named Rory who sets people on fire if they annoy him. On the periphery are the stars of the film, Eddie, Tom, Soap, and Bacon, a card sharp, a fence, a chef, and a street vendor, respectively, but with ambitions to move on up in the criminal fraternity.
The four lads each come up with 25 grand to back Eddie (Nick Moran) in Hatchet Harry’s card game, which has a 100 grand minimum to play. The game is rigged, and Eddie ends up in the minus to Harry to the tune of half a million. Harry gives him a week to pay, otherwise Harry’s professional frightener, Big Chris (Vinny Jones, ex-Wimbledon soccer player fondly remembered for his nutcracker duet with Paul Gascoigne in a premier league game many years ago), will remove a finger per day from Eddie and his backers until the debt is paid off. The petrified foursome rack their brains to find a way to raise the money. Hilarious schemes are devised and debated until they overhear the crooks next door (through a ventilator grill) plotting to rob the stoner Fauntleroys of their crops and cash — and they decide to tool up with firearms and rob the robbers.
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"Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" quickly racks up a body count to top Tarantino’s worst excesses, but the violence is short on gore and handled with more subtlety than we normally see in comparable American films. It’s very much a lads’ night out, with an almost exclusively male cast — the only women in the film are the dealer at the crooked card game in which Ed clocks up his big debt, and a stoner hippy girl in paisley-patterned gear who says almost nothing and blends in with the skunk farmers’ crash pad furniture for most of the film.
Ritchie’s convoluted plot is shot through with hilarious coincidences, and rips along at a breakneck pace that never gives you a second to ponder just how preposterous they are. The script is strewn with as many snappy one-liners as it is with bullet-riddled corpses, and it’s a testament to Ritchie’s genre-hopping skills that he never loses his balance switching from ruthless violence to slapstick comedy, and back again. To propel his film at this full-tilt pace, Ritchie uses sweeping wide angles, slo-mo, and jittery accelerated shots, and makes the most of a top-notch soundtrack, featuring sources as diverse as Mikis Theodorakis, Junior Murvin, James Brown and The Stooges. The music works as an integral part of the film, rather than a tacked-on sonic afterthought, as found in inferior films that aspire to this level of style but never reach it.
The combination of brisk pacing, complex plot and rhyming cockney slang make this film well worth a second viewing to catch all the stuff you missed the first time. Watch out for Celtic Warrior Steve Collins’s brief cameo appearance, at a short remove from his day job, as the bouncer at the boxing gym in which Hatchet Harry runs his dodgy card game.
In keeping with the authentic feel of the film, this scene was shot at the East End’s Repton Boxing Gym, a favorite haunt of the infamous Kray twins in the 1960s. Much of the footage was shot around Brick Lane and Bethnal Green, in East London, and Ritchie’s film works the gritty home turf of these ruthless thugs to give us as entertaining and accomplished a cinematic debut as we’ll see this year.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels opens in New York on Friday, March 5.