By Michael Gray
Film director Guy Ritchie launched his second film, “Snatch,” in his native Britain with a great PR gimmick — he married Madonna. The hitching of the sophomore director to the perennial pop icon and mother of his child ensured lots of timely press exposure for the film on his home turf, and helped to make “Snatch” a UK box-office success.
As the film opens in New York, Ritchie remains better known on this side of the Atlantic as Mr. Madonna than the mockney Tarantino he became at home, on the strength of his debut feature “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” This earlier film owes a sizable debt to “Pulp Fiction” and its author’s signature style of overlapping stories, unlikely coincidences and colliding characters, and “Snatch” finds Ritchie still further in the red. Tarantino wrote the book on perps talking rubbish en route to the crime scene, and Ritchie merely cogged his ecker and translated it into cockney.
“Snatch” follows closely the London wideboy formula of Ritchie’s previous crime caper. The priceless antique muskets that were the grail of a motley assortment of East End thugs in “Lock, Stock” have been replaced this time round by a more conventional object of desire — a gigantic diamond.
The huge stone is stolen in Antwerp by thieves disguised as hassidim and brought to London, where its new owner
(Benicio Del Toro) becomes the target of a Russian crook, who sends an inept gang of Jamaican heavies to rob him at a bookie’s shop. The various colorful characters shoot each other, beat each other up, and knock each other down in cars over the next hour and a half, to arrive at an entirely random conclusion that is none the worse for being so.
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Ritchie likes his ethnic characters drawn in nice broad strokes, and once again he grabs the big crayons in both fists to sketch us some Jackie Mason hassidics, badboy Carib yardies, and a sinister Russian called Boris, without caring much whether he stays inside the lines.
The Irish quotient is upgraded from near non-existence last time — Celtic Warrior and former world champion boxer Steve Collins made a very brief cameo appearance in “Lock, Stock” as a bouncer — to pivotal status in “Snatch”. The film’s only certified star, Brad Pitt, plays Mickey
“One Punch” O’Neill, an Irish traveler encountered by two cockney boxing promoters on a caravan-buying expedition to a halting site. A difference of opinion between them results in the Irish bruiser knocking out the cockneys’ professional frightener, leaving them a man short for an important upcoming bout. Mickey becomes the obvious replacement, and the cockneys soon find their new fighter unpredictable, unmanageable, and a lot savvier than he looks or sounds.
Pitt took flak from all sides three years ago for his efforts as an IRA man on the run in New York in the dismal thriller “The Devil’s Own,” but he was better than he was given credit for, and understood his character’s accent well enough to rhyme “circus clown” with “Calvin Klein” like any Belfast native. In “Snatch”, he tackles the much more difficult dialect of the Irish traveler community, and pulls it off effortlessly, gliding over vowels and eliding consonants to produce something Roger Ebert grandly described as “lost passages from ‘Finnegan’s Wake.’ ”
Festooned with tattoos and sporting a leather porkpie hat, Pitt is a riot as the champion bare-knuckle fighter, playing his role with a sly mix of brawn and cunning that goes beyond the cartoon outline Ritchie drew for him. And still pumped to thump from last year’s “Fight Club,” Pitt looks ready to take on wannabe Irish sluggers Danny Day Lewis and Mickey Rourke anytime he likes.
Irish people can take umbrage if they want at Pitt’s chracterization, and probably will, as a matter of principle. But the people most offended by Ritchie’s characters are cockneys themselves, who view Ritchie as a Sloane Ranger slumming it in excursions to the East End before heading for Scotland to get married in a castle. Growing up as the stepson of a baronet in a 17th Century stately home, Ritchie’s only youthful contact with the pearly kings and diamond geezers of London would have been watching old episodes of “Minder” on the telly — if indeed the BBC signal reached that far into Shropshire in those days.
But with two successful features under his belt, Ritchie’s stylish portrayals of Thameside thugs have eclipsed the less colorful versions previously seen in “The Long Good Friday” in the eyes of international cinema audiences, much to the disgruntlement of those born within cauliflower earshot of Bow Bells.
“Snatch” offers no moral, no heroes, and no happy ending, but the director is clever enough and a deft enough storyteller to spin his labyrinthine yarns to maximum comic effect, without needing a message as well.
Though the film looks like it was edited by strobelight, lit by colorblind folks who never saw a pop video gimmick they didn’t like, and directed by someone who’s seen a few proper films but would much rather watch VH-1 instead, “Snatch” still delivers tons of bloody, frenetic entertainment for those inured to casual and relentless screen violence. It’s perfect fare for a lads’ night out, and if “Snatch” finds Ritchie making no leap forward from “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” the cult following generated by his earlier film will be delighted with this brutal comic sequel.