Part 1

The Thin Red Line to Star Wars Episode I (January - May 1999)

by PopMatters Staff

22 March 2009


Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and more

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Office Space

Director: Mike Judge
Cast: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, Gary Cole, Stephen Root

(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 19 Feb 1999

Office Space Director: Mike Judge

It might be easy these days to get Office Space confused with The Office, versions of which have been hits on two continents now, and the American version of which still draws a commanding audience—especially for a half-hour comedy—in its fifth season. Both are documents of the banality, frustration, and unlikely camaraderie that stems from working in a cube farm for 40 hours per week, after all, and both have, over the last ten years, slowly drawn the sort of devotion usually reserved for niche sci-fi/horror exercises or arthouse films. Both Office Space and The Office are alternately slapstick and deadpan, and both speak to a sort of white collar angst that has pervaded the middle class, more so now than ever as we watch pay get cut, benefits get slashed, and millions lose the jobs they may have hated, but still absolutely needed.

There’s a major difference between the two however, an important difference that allows the persistence of television to be a perfect format for The Office, and the brevity of cinema to be the perfect format for Office Space: The Office is built on the banality of real life (albeit a slightly exaggerated version of such), while Office Space, at its heart, is pure fantasy.

Office Space starts a lot like The Office, but all of that changes once Peter Gibbons sees a hypnotherapist (who dies in the middle of the session, of course), and suddenly he finds peace with his lot in life.  Gibbons is then promoted for telling Bob and Bob—the consultants—that he sneaks into work late and basically does nothing the entire day, that he is motivated entirely by the avoidance of harassment.  It’s at this point that the true-life office worker starts to feel the pangs of recognition, followed by the wish that such candor, if it were offered, would be rewarded as it is here.

Of course, promotion never comes without a price, and two of Gibbons’ friends, Michael Bolton and Samir, are laid off.  Relaxed as ever about his own situation, he then devises an ill-fated “retirement plan” with his two friends, with the goal that none of them will ever have to work again as they cheat the company that wronged them fractions of a penny at a time.  Of course, things don’t work out as they plan, but red-stapler-guy, the most comic/tragic character in the entire movie as an employee laid off years previously who just never realized as much given that he pulled a paycheck anyway, burns the place down and everyone lives happily ever after anyway.

Writer/director Mike Judge’s use of gangsta rap is perhaps the most direct indication that what he is showing us is a fantasy; that these three characters, by all appearances and actions some of the least likely people in the entire world to be listening to gangsta rap would, in a roundabout way, be identifying with it is a stroke of genius.  When your existence has been reduced to that of a rat in a sterile white maze looking for cheese that may or may not exist, you eventually get to the point where you just want to fuck some shit up.  Of course, this is just what Peter, Michael, and Samir do in perhaps the most iconic scene in the movie, the death of the printer.  One can only imagine how many times this scene has played out the minds of office denizens in the time since then.

Of course, most of us know that if we were to play out the fantasy that Judge presents, we’d end up jobless, or in jail, or worse. That’s what makes the movie so fulfilling, so enduring—the mere fact that there is literally nothing else like it, that grabs a certain segment of the population and allows them to vicariously live out the fantasy of getting back at the corporate entity responsible for their own, personal hell.  In the end, Peter Gibbons gets off scot free, gets the girl, and finds a job that he actually finds satisfying, a fantasy that in 2009 feels as relevant and as distant as it ever has. Mike Schiller

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Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, Jason Statham, Steven Mackintosh, Vinnie Jones, Sting

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 5 Mar 1999

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels Director: Guy Ritchie

As Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels blinks into existence, Jason Statham is on a street corner, pushing stolen goods on a crowd of otherwise respectable middle-aged shoppers with an absolutely irresistible mix of rhyming slang, smutty innuendo, and the kind of vaguely criminal good looks that have made him into a B-movie star in the decade since its release. “Treat the wife! Treat someone else’s wife; it’s more fun if you don’t get caught,” he bellows conspiratorially. He’s an absolute pro at this, and has the crowd, both on screen and off, completely riveted. But then, the cops show up, and everyone has to run away (half in slow motion), a great song plays, and it’s on to something else.

This scene is Lock, Stock in a nutshell: a world of sleazily arresting underworld types, heavily stylized visuals, amazing music, a lot of running around, and not a lot of explanations. It’s a heist comedy at heart, with a highly convoluted plot involving several dozen criminals grouped into nearly as many competing gangs of thieves, murders, drug dealers, gangsters, and loan sharks. It’s a man’s world (there are something like three women in the entire film), where everyone is tough, sure of themselves, and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, preferably while having a few pints and a fag.  It is, in short, an almost unbelievably cool film.

“Cool” is an elusive concept, to be sure, and applies equally to Miles Davis, Fonzi, and Animal Collective. Lock, Stock is a particular kind of cool: a rough, street smart brand of British cool that hearkens back to films of the 1970s like Poor Cow and The Italian Job. The kind of cool where characters lounge in leather jackets under neon signs while James Brown plays in the background. The kind of cool where how tough someone sounds while talking in rhyming slang goes a lot further to determining their worth than how they dress. Lock, Stock was the leading edge of this trend, which has been continued by films and TV shows like The Bank Job and the BBC’s Life on Mars.

Like most cool things, Lock, Stock does not benefit from deep analysis. It has a moral code of sorts (only the honest crooks win out in the end), but it does not actually have anything to say.  There’s an almost shocking amount of violence, but it’s played for laughs on all but a few occasions: a man is beaten to death with a dildo, a man running out of a bar on fire only merits bemused looks from our protagonists, a weary “Oh, Dog” is all one hood says to another after he kills a hostage with a foot-long bowie knife, etc. The film is geared to a supremely solipsistic view of the world, where horrible things are hilarious as long as they’re happening to someone else. It’s a film built for a teenager with an inflated sense of self-regard, which is most likely why I loved it as a self-assured 16-year-old.

Lastly, we must say a few words about the man behind all of this, writer/director Guy Ritchie. For, as much as Lock, Stock catapulted him to international stardom, it also contained the seeds of his (hopefully temporary) demise as a filmmaker. First, while fun, Lock, Stock does not strictly make sense. Full of improbable events, one-note characters, and half-mumbled dialogue, it showed a certain technical weakness in storytelling that would not serve him well as he attempted to progress as a filmmaker. Ritchie also doesn’t shy away from stunt casting here, populating his film with real-life gangsters, the soccer star Vinnie Jones (absolutely terrifying as Big Chris, a violent tornado of a man), and even Sting, making what is to date his last on-screen appearance. This would of course come to disastrous conclusion with Swept Away, Ritchie’s attempt to revive the film career of his then-wife and perpetually aspiring-actress, Madonna. Possibly one of the worst films ever made, Swept Away effectively ended Ritchie’s career for half a decade.

This was, of course, all still well in the future when Lock, Stock came to America in 1999. As the film closes, one of our heroes is hanging from a bridge, obscenely valuable guns in one hand, his only grip on the bridge in the other, and his cell phone in his mouth, just as it begins to ring. Will he save the guns and help his friends come out on top? The film cuts to black before we find out.  Like that hood, precariously perched over the Thames, Ritchie’s career is something of a mystery. He could very well come out on top, his latest, RocknRolla was reasonably well reviewed, and his upcoming Sherlock Holmes (starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law) looks like it could match fellow ‘90s filmmaker John Favreau’s Iron Man. Or, he may well lose his grip, and tumble back into obscurity. Either way, we’ll still have Lock, Stock. Chris Chafin



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