Thursday 18 March 2010

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran and Jason Statham

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

There are points where the industry moves on to a new standard with a single film, most obviously through the introduction of sound, colour and widescreen, though really all of those came in a number of stages. With these things long out of the way though, often it seems like anything new isn't really new in the slightest (they tell us that 2011 will be the year of 3D). The only obvious exception is CGI, easily definable as a product of new technology, but there's one other that might seem a little more elusive because it really did't come from one source. You could call it stylings of the ADHD generation, the influence of the rock video or the TV commercial, but it's a combination of fast paced editing, a high profile soundtrack and a blistering array of effects to fit the mood of the second at hand.

Whatever you call it and wherever it came from it's everywhere nowadays in TV shows and movies, but it's usually used as a magic trick, a distraction from the fact that there's nothing underneath the glitz. Watch any random episode of CSI: Miami to see what I mean. Films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, its spiritual sequel, are the exception because Guy Ritchie seems to be equally adept in making this sort of picture but with a real story as the grounding, a more focused story than perhaps the current king of the genre, Pulp Fiction. As befits the pace, these films combine a few subplots that could have each made Ealing comedies if only they didn't include such foul language, but they're crammed into surprisingly short running times, around an hour and three quarters for each film. It's clever writing, however jazzed up it becomes through the stylistics of it all.

Ritchie made both commercials and rock videos and channelled the profits into the production of The Hard Case, a twenty minute short film. Trudie Styler, the wife of rock star Sting, saw the potential and invested into a full length feature which turned out to be this one on which she carries an executive producer credit and her husband plays a part. It was an ambitious piece for a debut writer/director, building a labyrinthine story around a maddening number of characters, none of which were played by known actors, though there were a couple of people well known for other things: Vinnie Jones as a footballer, Lenny McLean as a bare knuckle boxer and Jason Statham as an Olympic diver and male model. Nobody serves as a leading man and certainly nobody serves as a leading lady, there being precisely two women in the large cast and one never speaks.

What's more the story arcs like a boomerang in flight, its various subplots hurled out into nowhere, apparently entirely out of control for half the film, but they then proceed to fall back into place and tie together with a powerful inexorability. Where this leaves us is watching a lot of people doing a lot of things, their connections gradually revealed as a challenge to us to work out what's going to happen next, and as we start to work it all out it starts coming together almost faster than we can watch. At one point three of our characters are about to walk into a pub when a man on fire rushes out in front of them. We're not given any explanation, at least not immediately, the reasoning coming later as part of the background of yet another character, provided in a stunning display of Cockney rhyming slang that is thankfully subtitled, even for me. I was born in England but too far away to hear the bells of Bow.

The main subplot concerns four young men who pool their money together to raise the hundred grand necessary to get Eddy into a high stakes card game. Bacon is a standard shady street dealer with Eddy as his sidekick. 'They're not stolen, they're just not paid for,' says Bacon, before promptly running from the cops. Tom runs his stolen goods at a higher and more sustainable rate out of the back room of a shop, but he's still small time. Soap is a cook, who got his name because he tries very hard indeed to keep away from dubious activities, though he doesn't do too well at that given where this story takes him. Each of them has somehow managed to save up £25,000 to stake on Eddy, who is a natural and has the talent to win them plenty in return. Life is promising for these four, who are the closest thing in the film to heroes.

The problem is that this game of three card brag, played in a boxing ring, is a crooked game, because Hatchet Harry, the local porn king, has his eye on a bar owned by JD, Eddy's father. So it isn't too surprising to find that Eddy doesn't just lose the hundred grand, he loses half a million more that he had to borrow from the man he loses to in order to call him. Now, owing Hatchet Harry is a dangerous business, partly because he once beat an employee to death with a sex aid and partly because he has a couple of very tough cookies as his enforcers. His sidekick is Barry the Baptist, so named because he drowns people for Harry, and his debt collector is Big Chris. Both are rather violent, hardly surprising given that they're played by bare knuckle boxer Lenny McLean and the bad boy of English football, Vinnie Jones, respectively.

McLean is awesome here, a true inheritor to the thug mentality and powerful presence of Laurence Tierney, explaining to Eddy that he has a week to pay his debt or he'll be round to chop off a finger a day from each of the four who put up the money, before he starts on JD and his bar. McLean made the transition to the screen through being minder to a couple of TV stars and he proved here that he had everything it took to play a particular type of character very memorably indeed, not only through his beaten visage and his deep voice. He should be working for Quentin Tarantino now but he died of cancer a month before this movie debuted with only a handful of screen roles behind him. This was by far his most prominent appearance and it's a fitting epitaph. The film was dedicated to him.

In comparison Vinnie Jones plays somewhat against character in this, his screen debut. Sure, Big Chris has a tough job and he's tough enough to fill it, but he does so in a rather polite manner. He has a son, who is a sort of miniature version of himself, and he appears to be a great role model in every way other than the job he does. In fact he brings Little Chris along on his jobs but won't permit foul language or blasphemy in front of him. While there was every expectation that Jones would be a one trick pony, given his particular talents, he's proved to be a fascinating actor with a talent for finding interesting films to appear in, however much he remains the tough guy in most of them. He returned for Snatch and has kept himself more than a little busy, my favourite role of his thus far being in the amazing Japanese film Survive Style 5+.
Talking of fascinating actors with a talent for finding interesting films to appear in, I should mention Jason Statham. This was his debut film too and while he doesn't have the presence he soon would have, he's by far the most obvious of the four small timers at the heart of the story even though his co-stars are hardly lightweights and all were more experienced than him. Eddy is Nick Moran, Tom is Jason Flemyng and Soap is Dexter Fletcher, who started out as a child actor in Bugsy Malone, The Elephant Man and The Long Good Friday. While he's hardly appeared in anything yet that is likely to get him nominated for a serious acting award, Statham has become the epitome of male wish fulfilment on screen, perhaps the modern equivalent of Steve McQueen.

There are other subplots beyond the gambling debt. A lord in need of money is putting up a couple of antique shotguns for auction and Hatchet Harry wants them without having to pay for them, so Barry hires a couple of Scouse thieves to do the job. Four men run a large scale ganja farm and have so much money that they can't even count it, not least because Willie goes out to get a money counter and comes back six hours later with a bag of fertiliser and a stoned girl. They've survived this far with lax security only because they're public schoolboys catering to a polite clientele. A gang of vicious drug dealers led by Dog live next door to Bacon and Eddy and they plan a heist, their biggest problem being that the walls are thin enough that all their plans filter through to their neighbours at precisely the right or wrong time, depending on your perspectives.

Beyond the narration, which might just be inevitable to keep so many diffuse characters in focus, what ties most of this together is circumstance and ineptitude. Ritchie's London is a small pond with a few big fish who know their place, but the smaller fish really don't have much of a clue and flounder around, no pun intended, reacting to their own particular need at the time. I've never seen so much cruel yet thoroughly well deserved irony in one film, as these crooks gradually discover the small world theory, that everything is connected (mostly through a character inevitably named Nick the Greek) and through fewer connections than might be expected. So the guns our heroes acquire to accomplish the theft they need to pay off their debt are enough to pay off that debt on their own, if only they knew. They steal drugs that were stolen from the people they try to sell them to. There's even a scene where a pair of thieves try to steal the guns from the very man they're trying to steal them for.

Needless to say there's plenty of humour here. We see what characters are about to do and we can't help but laugh at how bad it's inevitably going to get for them. Yet they're all both crooks and human beings with motivations and so we get to place each of them on our own sliding scale of morality and cheer for whoever we feel is less morally dubious in any particular conflict. The only one we might have sympathy for is a traffic warden who becomes comic relief on a number of occasions, having been inadvertently thrown into a different world, the world of Guy Ritchie where everyone is a crook. Yet even then he's a traffic warden, the lowest of the low when it comes to law enforcement. Mostly we're just watching a bunch of crooks effectively play a bizarre game that is half pass the parcel, with a MacGuffin of money and guns inside, and half Russian roulette.

While some of these conflicts are vicious, some are more like a choreography of ineptitude. One gunfight is particularly insane. On one side, there are four drug dealers in a security cage with a Bren gun. On the other side, there are three drug dealers with an air rifle and a fourth on the ground fainted clear away. What's most hilarious is that the Bren gun has about as much effect as the air rifle and this ineptitude is what makes this film work so awesomely well. The Production Code famously had a requirement that every criminal got his comeuppance by the end of the movie, and here many of them end up dead, but unlike the Warner Brothers gangster movies in the thirties, if all the crooks ended up dead in this film there would be nobody left to see the end of it. Even the finale has its cliffhanger so it could well be that only one crook ends up better off than he began.

Whether you're going to like this film or not probably depends on two factors. One is that this is emphatically a modern cool movie, full of the gimmickry of modern ADD filmmaking. Guy Ritchie plays with what he has on screen, mostly to focus on the details. He freezes the frame or splits it and often provides opportune close ups so that we can see what we're supposed to see in a fast paced scene. He speeds up the motion to build the pace or slows it down to give Alan Ford a chance to fill in the explanations needed with his detail oriented narration. Add an impeccably cool music score and a few pop culture icons from Vinnie Jones to Jason Statham to Sting and if there are other films better targeted at FHM readers I've not heard of them.

The other is that this is emphatically an English film and the culture it explores is a departure from the American equivalent you see in Tarantino movies. The snappy dialogue is just as cool as Tarantino's but far more realistic. Tarantino's dialogue is ultra hip and wonderfully so, but it's not particularly believable. On the other hand, we can easily believe that Ritchie's characters would talk exactly how they do. The northern monkeys, southern fairies dialogue I've heard many times in real life. The only catch is that the amount of slang, cockney rhyming and otherwise, in the dialogue could easily make it sound like complete gibberish to anyone outside of England or even outside of London.

Unlike his heroes, Ritchie did better here than he might have expected. He made an excellent film that became successful both with the critics and at the box office, one that will no doubt be remembered as an influential film when critics write about the modern era. However he also took the opportunity to gather material for his next film, 2000's Snatch, which runs through much of the same ground but with name actors, because while Lenny McLean didn't live to become a part of it, a number of the stories in Snatch would appear to be based on him. Ritchie even ended up with a wife, given that he met Madonna at Sting's house during filming and they went on to become one of England's most bankable celebrity couples, though they divorced in 2008. 'There's just one more thing,' Big Chris says here. 'It's been emotional.'

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