Published January 1, 2001
Here I make my declaration of faith: the single most important element in film is plot. This is because film is an inescapably realistic medium. You can’t make it look not like life, though, God knows, an awful lot of people have tried. But it is life in motion, which means that it cries out for plot to give it form and meaning. I don’t say that you can’t have a good film without a plot. Most recently we have had You Can Count on Me, which I liked quite a lot, but which has no plot to speak of — or, as is so often the case with these arty character- studies, several. But it is not for nothing that Alfred Hitchcock comes at the top of most people’s lists of the greatest Hollywood film-makers. He knew that what made people — at least grown up people — come to the movies was the story he had to tell, so he always told it as if nothing else was so important.
Snatch, like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the first film by Guy Ritchie (Mr. Madonna), makes up for its rather boring atmospherics by being gratifyingly tightly plotted. For those with but a dim memory of his earlier film, I should say that by the atmospherics I mean all that hokey authenticity about gangsters from the East End of London whose speech is as colorful as their methods of disposing of each other. But I don’t buy it. These are guys who like to play at being tough guys — as opposed, that is, to guys who really are tough guys. You can tell because they don’t care about how plausible their toughness is to an audience. Brick Top (Alan Ford) is supposed to be so tough that he feeds his enemies to the pigs. We see him describing how quickly a herd of swine will consume a human body (thoughtfully cut up for them by Brick Top’s tough-guy henchmen) in quite a detached, almost scientific way.
Rubbish. It is patently all bluff and bluster. But the English, so admirably skeptical in so many other ways, are always suckers for the guy who can plausibly pretend to be well-acquainted with the hard men of the criminal underworld — even though that almost exclusively masculine demi-monde of bare-knuckle prize-fights and jewel thefts and mayhem in the streets is unlikely still to be found in the real East End, if, indeed, it ever was. And this implausibility leads to others. Brick Top, for instance, goes around before an illegal bare knuckle fight that he has promoted loudly announcing that the fight has been fixed and that one of the two fighters will go down in the fourth round. Are all the suckers betting on this fighter then somewhere else? Or are they just eager to hand their money over to Brick Top so that he won’t feed them to his pigs?
Or take the bare knuckle fight itself. If such things do still exist, they don’t look anything like this. Little Brad Pitt plays Mickey “One Punch” O’Neill who regularly knocks out guys twice his size with a single blow. Has Ritchie ever been to a real fight? Everybody who knows anything about boxing knows that a big man with experience in the ring and enough brain cells left to tie his shoes will always beat a little man, no matter how good he is. That is why they have weight divisions. But buff Brad, covered in tattoos and supposedly an Irish gypsy (or “pikey” ) takes all the punishment that the big guys can dish out and then knocks them out cold with a single blow.
This is a bit like the Baroque theatricality of Brick Top’s throwing his victims to the pigs. Ritchie doesn’t care that it is taxing our capacity for belief by going way over the top. Belief is not necessary here. We only have to admire the inventiveness of the Big Talk these tough guys are always engaging in, not believe that it really means anything. And to advertise the fact, the Big Talk is way over-written, as if Ritchie were trying (and failing) to write Raymond Chandleresque prose in the much-too-frequent voiceovers of his hero, a small-time crook and fight promoter called Turkish (Jason Statham). For example, one of the tough guys called Boris the Blade (Rade Serbedzija), a former KGB agent, is said to be “more bent than the Soviet sickle and harder than the hammer that crosses it”
But having spent so long telling what is wrong with the film, I should briefly mention the one thing that is right — right enough, even, to make it worth seeing. You have to be mentally alert to follow the plot, but if you do manage to follow it, it will give you an almost Hitchcockian satisfaction. And a further satisfaction in reflecting that there is at least one director still working who really cares about his plots and doesn’t regard them as if they were merely a means to get from one explosion or car chase to the next. Ritchie has a lot of bad habits and annoying mannerisms to overcome, but they seem pretty minor faults compared to this one very big virtue.