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Comparisons between Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Pulp Fiction are inevitable: both movies feature a large cast of characters whose separate stories eventually dovetail together in strange and unexpected ways. Both movies also display their director's love of moviemaking, clearly in evidence as the camera swirls around the principal actors for no reason other than it looks damn cool.
However, comparisons with Pulp Fiction (or Reservoir Dogs) aren't particularly helpful because director Guy Ritchie isn't just another Tarantino wanna-be riffing on violence and brutality. Ritchie is a marvelously talented first-time writer/director with an exceptional instinct for creating unusual characters and stunning plot twists. He also takes a broader comedic approach than Tarantino. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is guided by a tongue-in-cheek approach that frequently puts the characters in absurd situations, but the characters are believable enough that the story never degenerates into farce (although it comes mighty close at times).
Among the many characters that inhabit the movie's gritty East End locale, you'll meet Tom, Soap, Eddie, and Bacon (Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Jason Statham, respectively). They envision themselves to be practically invincible. Together, they provide Eddie with £100,000 to buy-in to a high-stakes card game. Hey, they can't lose, or at least that's what they think. But the game is rigged and Eddie leaves the game £500,000 in debt to Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), an underworld boss who does a lucrative trade in sex toys. Occurring at about the same time, Harry's hard-as-nails henchman, Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), finds a pair of two-bit thieves to break into a mansion and steal a set of antique guns. However, after they steal the guns and before they turn over the guns to Barry the Baptist, the none-too-bright thieves sell two of the rifles--not comprehending what the rifles might really be worth. Our heroes, Tom, Soap, Eddie, and Bacon (or at least they're the closest you'll find to heroes in this tale of ne'er-do-wells), end up with the rifles--huge four-foot long double-barrel flintlock shotguns. They need the guns because they are contemplating a heist of their own. They need some cash fast or Big Chris (Vinnie Jones), Hatchet Harry's horribly unpleasant debt collector, will soon begin slicing off their fingers--one finger for every day late. Meanwhile, an unpleasant criminal named Dog (Frank Harper), who leads a gang of buffoonish louts, prepares to rip off a marijuana dealer named Winston (Steven Mackintosh). It looks like an easy hit. The front gate to Winston's apartment/warehouse is never locked.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. At least a dozen other characters play crucial roles in the ensuing mayhem of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Director Ritchie somehow manages to make sense of this chaos, allowing the stories to magically intersect and diverge at least a half dozen times. In the Guy Ritchie universe, if anything can go wrong, it will. For example, Winston's partners never lock the front gate--until just before the thieves show up. As a result, the thieves become stuck in the entry cage while Winston shoots at them with a BB gun (OOWW!)--a very uncool position for a self-respecting thief to be caught in. But that's part of the point: in the Guy Ritchie universe, no one is particularly cool and everyone is prone to stupidity and bad luck.
Ritchie filmed Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in shades of yellow, brown, and grey, as if the color film stock were old and weathered. This approach makes the movie feel less slick and less premeditated and more spontaneous. Occasionally, Ritchie can't resist showing off, like a kid with a new toy. During the card game, for example, the camera tracks around the card table as the players toss their cards toward the camera in slow motion. The effect is artificial and contrived, but it undeniably looks pretty cool. In scenes like this one, Ritchie begins to lose his discipline as a filmmaker. But he's clearly having a blast, and the feeling is contagious.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has already been released in England, where it quickly became one of the largest grossing movies in English box-office history. It contains few names that American audiences will recognize--except for Sting, who plays Eddie's father. However, several of the actors are famous in Europe. Vinnie Jones, who plays debt collector Big Chris, is a renowned world-class footballer (that's "soccer player" to Americans). And Lenny McLean, who plays Hatchet Harry's henchman, was a former World Heavyweight Bare Knuckle Champion who was undefeated in 3,000 fights. (McLean died soon after the movie was completed. The movie is dedicated to his memory.)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is an auspicious debut effort by Ritchie. It reminds me more of Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple than it does the work of Quentin Tarantino. Like the Coen brothers, Ritchie isn't particularly interested in glamorizing thieves and gangsters. While Tarantino can't resist immortalizing his bank thieves in Reservoir Dogs by capturing them in slow motion splendor, Ritchie prefers to reveal his heroes as completely incapable of comprehending the depth of their blunders. Neither is Ritchie particularly interested in spilling blood. While the movie has a high body count, most of the violence is implied rather than depicted graphically. Ritchie is more interested in the bemused expressions of his central characters as their heist plans quickly spiral out-of-control. This is a marvelous movie.