Published January 1, 1999
The best thing about Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, written and directed by the Englishman, Guy Ritchie, is the plot. Long before Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction revolutionized the noir style of thriller and brought back the gangster movie in a new form, a tightly constructed, intricate plot was one of the glories of the movies. Ritchie’s film, which is otherwise regrettably too much indebted to Tarantino, is a work of old-fashioned craftsmanship when it comes to the plotting, and there is a genuine pleasure—just about enough to make the movie worth seeing—to be had out of admiring its exquisite joinery. Unfortunately, the Tarantinian elements—the artificial and self-consciously witty dialogue, the bizarre characters and the careful juxtapositions of the mundane with high-impact violence—are now overly familiar and more than a little stale-looking.
It would take far too long to recount the story in any detail, but it has to do with four guys, Eddie (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Statham), and Soap (Dexter Fletcher), from the East End of London each of whom makes a contribution of £25,000 to get Eddie into a poker game run by Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), as the game’s minimum stake is £100,000. Eddie is great card player, and the others think he can’t lose. But the game is rigged. Eddie loses not only the stake but £500,000 in total. He has one week to come up with the money before Harry will begin to cut his fingers off—and those of his three friends. Harry’s real aim is to get the bar run by J.D. (Sting), Eddie’s father, but J.D. is unmoved by his son’s plight and refuses to sell. “Your bar or your son,” says Big Chris (Vinnie Jones)—himself a doting papa to Little Chris—on Harry’s behalf. J.D.has no hesitation in choosing the bar.
This leaves our heroes in need of a large sum of money, which they plan to acquire by robbing the robbers next door, led by the vicious Dog (Frank Harper), who are themselves planning to rob a third gang of drug wholesalers. The third gang is led by an ex-public school boy, Winston (Steven Mackintosh), but it is working under the protection of the psychopathically violent Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood). Meanwhile, Harry employs two burglars to steal for him two antique shotguns worth several hundred thousand pounds. The burglars make a mistake and bring Harry the functional guns from the house, selling the antiques to Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus) for use by Eddie and the gang in their robbery. Tom is worried that the antique gun is “lacking in criminal credibility” and is afraid of being laughed at. “I want to look mean,” he says.
It could be the film’s motto, as a great deal of effort is put into making everybody look mean except for the four relatively likeable lads at its center. They look so mean that they’re funny—and therefore not mean. Perhaps the most successful at looking mean is Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), another of Harry the Hatchet’s muscle men who, it is said, “makes sure the administrative side of the business runs smoothly.” Barry got his nickname by holding people’s heads under water until they did what Harry wanted, and soon he is putting pressure, as only he knows how to do, on the burglars to retrieve the antiques from the burglars. This helps to set up a circle of thugs and killers all pursuing each other under the watchful eye of the loathsome Harry, who is identified by a brass plate on his door as a “Porn King.”
Barry the Baptist looks mean because he is mean. Or was, as he died shortly after filming was completed. As a former heavyweight champion among bare-knuckle (and therefore illegal) pugilists, he presumably had some experience among people like Harry and Barry. Likewise, Vinnie Jones, who plays Big Chris, is a popular football (i.e. soccer) star in Britain with a reputation for naughtiness. Others in the cast have histories as petty (or perhaps not so petty) criminals. Thus it is that words like “real” and “authentic” ring through the film’s press materials.
“It’s an exaggerated look,” clarifies Frank Harper, who plays criminal ringleader Dog. “but it is real, in that gangs do go around ripping one another off over drugs, and people do get into trouble financially, often through no fault of their own—which leads to them getting dragged into the criminal underworld. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is funny, and it’s a cracking good story about life on the street”. . .Several of the cast had grown up and worked around the East End, giving their performances added authenticity. . .
But what in fact we notice is that the more of this kind of “authenticity” it has, the less authentic the movie seems to be. Ritchie himself is quoted as saying that “Comedy and gangsters are inseparable: the truer the villain, the funnier they are—not necessarily ‘Ha-Ha!’ funny. . .I found that I continually had to reign in the comedy elements so that it didn’t become too farcical.” There speaks a man, like Quentin Tarantino, whose principal acquaintance with gangsters is in the movies. But there is really no advance on the Tarantinan formula here, of violent, conscienceless and even psychopathic louts and thugs making jokes out of their criminal activities as a way, paradoxically, of making them seem more “real.” Note for future reference: in postmodern thought, “real” means “not real.”