Guy Ritchie can give you a headache. No, not with his ‘70s post-modernism mixed with unhealthy doses of MTV-schooled stylization. No, not even with his cockney rhyming, slang happy cast of cartoon-like characters. Certainly, his stint as Madonna’s own personal boy toy filmmaker forced more than one viewer to run for the medicine cabinet (or in the case of their only feature collaboration, a rancid remake of Lina Wertmueller’s brilliant Swept Away, the porcelain throne below it), and their eventual divorce could give anyone the TMZ shivers.
No, Ritchie’s real ability to boil your brain comes with his undeniable inconsistency. One moment, he’s delivering an amazing bit of anarchy like Snatch. Then next, he’s dropping the cinematic equivalent of a deuce in your lap (2005’s Revolver). Even his first film, the often acclaimed heist flick Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels belies this migraine making hit or miss ideal. While his last effort, RocknRolla, resulted in a shot at bringing a beloved fictional character back to revisionist light (his take on Sherlock Holmes is mere weeks away), one can’t help but feel that too much was made out this initial effort, a clever if cluttered walk down old school English gangster gratuity.
Eddie (Nick Moran) fancies himself quite the card sharp. With the help of his friends Bacon (Jason Statham), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), and Tom (Jason Flemyng), he pools together the $100K required to enter Harry the Hatchet’s (P.H. Moriarty) high stakes game. When the sly street tough is finished with the lad, he’s in debt for nearly $500K and has only one week to raise it. If not, his father’s (Sting) bar is in jeopardy, as are all of his pals’ fingers. Desperate for a means of making that kind of cash, they get a brainstorm. Eddie and Bacon’s next door neighbors are drug dealers. They’ve overheard their own desire to rob a bunch of pot growing gits of their money and dope. So they decide to lie in wait, let the criminals do all the work, and then relieve them of their ill-gotten gains after. Naturally, things don’t go as planned.
Like any runaway train ready to trample all over past genre contrivances, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels takes a little while getting started. Since we’ve already met characters like this in his later work, and because the writer/director currently has said signature moves down to a cinematic science, the growing pains practiced here are frequent and obvious. Unlike Snatch, say, that finds a way to make several divergent narratives roar in the movie equivalent of a bawdy, pissed pub sing-along, this earlier effort needs some time to completely tap in and make the connections. Indeed, when we learn that Rory Breaker (an excellent Vas Blackwood) set the man on fire that we see coming out of the bar early on, the sudden shock of the link indicated Ritchie’s less than smooth sense of transition trickery.
Equally incomplete are the various motives involved. Hatchet Harry may actually be creating this entire card game with the hopes of landing Eddie’s father’s club, but said stratagem is never made clear. Similarly, the whole antiques gun issue feels like the most routine of red herrings, a way of keeping a couple of wacky characters in the story while providing the fodder for a “what next?” kind of Italian Job finale. There is no denying that Ritchie is head and shoulders above his UK crime thriller brethren. The closest the country had previously come to producing something similar was way back when Danny Boyle first burst on the screen with 1994’s Shallow Grave, and even that was more Hitchcock than post-modern histrionics. No, the effect this film had on the national noir type was immediate and undeniable. As with most influential titles, the reputation extends far beyond the actual entertainment value.
That doesn’t mean this movie is bad. Far from it. Indeed, some of the performances are so memorable you wish they were given more time to blossom and grow. Former illegal bareknuckles boxer Lenny McLean is so good as Harry’s right hand muscle, Barry the Baptist, that when we learn he died shortly after making the movie, our heart sinks a little - not just for the man himself, but for the power and abject magnetism he brought to the screen. Jason Statham (who’s also present, though in a much more subdued role) can only wish he can be this bad-ass as he heads toward his middle years. Similarly, Jason Flemyng is so slickly slimy as Tom that his current career as a mainstream movie “star” seems a million miles away. While there are other novel turns here and there (Sting just said the F-word!), this is really Ritchie’s resume builder - and he tries to make the most of it.
Oddly enough, for its arrival on Blu-ray, there are some real limitations to what Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels has to offer, content-wise. Granted, the 1080p picture looks amazing, Ritchie’s destaturated designs coming across with the necessary ambient grit and seedy London swagger the movie all but exudes. There’s also a featurette on said cinematography, as well as a compilation of all the film’s expletives. But a couple of years back, a “Director’s Cut” was offered with added scenes. That is not available here. Nor is said excised footage restored as a bonus feature or extra. Also missing from previous versions is a Cockney Dictionary, which might be helpful to those of you unfamiliar with the randy jokester jargon. But what would really be nice is a Ritchie commentary track. If any film needs a sense of perspective and import, it’s this one. Sadly, no said statement is offered.
Still, for all its minor flaws and digital packaging failings, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is a highly effective film. It is easy to see why it took an ill-prepared, post-Pulp Fiction fanbase by storm and how it set Ritchie up for future successes (Snatch, RocknRolla) and beyond expectation failures (Revolver). It’s the perfect example of a showboating headscratcher, a movie that makes its frequently fun points without ever really getting into the business of engaging you as a thriller or a dark comedy. Instead, the jokes appear haphazard and random, the violence a necessary evil of a movie made within the criminal context of this particular social arena. What his other movies have done summarily or languidly, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels does with some clear novice stumbles. It’s creative and very clever. It’s just not a classic.