Quentin Tarantino’s success burst open doors worldwide for young screenwriter-directors touting concepts for black comedies and stylized crime capers. Most of their scripts, sad to say, turned out to be nothing more than poor imitations.
One particularly notable exception was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The twisting, amusing heist movie was written and directed by Guy Ritchie, a 29-year-old Brit who never went to film school and learned his craft by creating music videos and TV commercials.
Unfortunately, as we see it, this feature-length debut also serves as the high point of Ritchie’s career—unless you count his eight-year marriage to Madonna. One of his later films, Snatch, also makes it into our Top 100. But like Orson Welles and M. Night Shyamalan, Ritchie peaked early.
But we digress. Lock, Stock owes a lot to Tarantino, as well as to the genre of Asian gangster films that influenced the great master. It features a large cast of oddball rogues whose lives enmesh in unexpected ways. It’s got a knotty plot that may require more than one viewing to fully comprehend. There are flashes of brutality, prominent drug use and enough F-bombs to make Joe Pesci cringe. Even the out-of-place Samoan-themed bar in London’s hardscrabble East End seems a tribute to Pulp’s quirky Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
What saves it from being a mere Tarantino ripoff is that it works. The dialogue is terrific, the acting adroit and the plot twists engrossing. All of that helps you look past the fact that Lock, Stock has no center and no message.
No matter. There are plenty of films on our list looking to make a point. This one does not try to hide that it is merely trying to entertain.
The plot focuses on four gangs of crooks all trying to outsmart one another. We are supposed to root for the group we meet first—a quartet of 20ish lads who are not exactly criminals, but are willing to delve into that business to improve their lot as street vendors and chefs.
The boys agree to pool 25,000 pounds each to stake the smartest among them, Eddy (Nick Moran), in a can’t-lose high-stakes poker game hosted by Hatchet Harry, the local porn king and crime boss. (On a side note, you may recognize the actor playing Hatchet, P. H. Moriarty, as the tough guy Razors from 1980’s The Long Good Friday. Ritchie lists that movie as his all-time favorite.)
Anyway, what the boys don’t know is that the poker game is rigged. Eddy ends up losing 500,000 pounds (more about his playing prowess in a minute). If it’s not paid in a week, Hatchet’s petrifying henchman, Barry the Baptist, will start chopping off our four boys’ fingers as collateral, at the rate of one digit per day.
That sets into motion a series of schemes and swindles involving, by our count, more than 20 characters in London’s criminal ranks. We don’t have the space here to recount all the anarchic plotline offshoots, and to be frank, we probably couldn’t make sense of it if we tried. We can tell you that the various capers include an apartment full of high-grade marijuana, two antique muskets and enough money to fill the trunk of a van.
What you’ll remember most clearly are the Tarantino-esque characters populating Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Like enforcer Big Chris, who travels with his identically dressed 10-year-old son, as if it’s “Bring Your Child to Work Day.” Big Chris bangs a car door on one poor victim’s head and then gently reminds Little Chris to strap on his seatbelt.
Or Rory (Vas Blackwood) the Jheri-curled drug dealer and Jules Winnfield lookalike who sets some poor sap on fire for switching off his soccer game on the pub TV. Or the aforementioned porn entrepreneur Hatchet Harry, who, in a pique of anger, beats a man to death with a rubber dildo. Or a drugged-out young woman who gets mistaken for a sofa cushion. Truth be told, with a collection of losers like this, it’s amazing that London’s underworld gets anything accomplished.
Did we mention that this is a comedy? Like Quentin-You-Know-Who, Ritchie keeps you going with some throwaway jokes, goofy subtitles and a dynamite soundtrack, which includes bouzouki music from Zorba the Greek. As a bonus, Lock, Stock leaves you with a cliffhanger of an ending that may have you debating our boys’ fate long after you’ve returned the DVD.
HIT: You’ll get a kick out of the characters’ use of Cockney rhyming slang—a manner of speaking in which words are replaced by other well-known phrases they rhyme with. So “face” becomes “Chevy Chase” and pub becomes “nuclear sub.” It’s not always easy to pick up (Ritchie even provides subtitles for one scene), but it is fun to listen to.
MISS: The quality of the film. No, not the script or the acting, but the actual film. Lock, Stock was shot in 16mm, rather than the standard 35mm, giving it a grittier, shallower look. This was Ritchie’s first full-length feature and he worked with a budget of just $1.6 million. Clearly, the money was not spent on equipment and film.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “It’s supposed to be visually exciting, but the result is more like a corpse-strewn Gap khakis ad than a triumph of technique. At least, based on the film’s grainy texture and amber lighting, it’s nice to know that the guy who shot every porn movie released in the ’70s appears to be working again.”—Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon.com
GOOF: Throughout the movie, Tom, one of the quartet of lads, sports close-cropped hair. But in the final scene, he has suddenly grown shaggy locks, which he tries to hide under a ski cap. Turns out the actors were called back to reshoot the ending long after the movie wrapped. And actor Jason Flemyng didn’t want to clip his hair for one day’s work.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Eddy’s father, the bar owner J.D., is played by Gordon Matthew Sumner. You may also know him as Sting.
REALITY CHECK: We are told that Eddy is a brilliant poker player, but the evidence suggests otherwise. He misreads his opponent, bets more money than he actually has and goes all in on one subpar hand (a pair of sixes). This level of “genius” wouldn’t win a Friday night pot down at the local VFW post.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: With all the plot twists and mumbled dialogue, the film requires two or three viewings just to understand what’s going on.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The commentary while that soccer game is televised in the Samoan pub scene. The broadcasters mention players “Guy Ritchie” and “Matthew Vaughn”—the director and producer of this movie.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: One scene demonstrates how Barry the Baptist got his nickname—by holding deadbeats’ heads under water until they see the light. Another shows the hoodlum character Dog torturing a poor soul by hanging him upside down and using him as a target while Dog drives golf balls. So we’d say the violence level is high.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Vinnie Jones, who makes his film debut here as henchman-with-a-heart Big Chris, was a professional soccer player in Great Britain for 16 years. Known as a “hard man” (soccer’s equivalent of a hockey goon), Jones set an English Premier League record by getting hit with a yellow card just three seconds into a match. His trademark move was to grab an opponent by the testicles—and twist.
BEST LINE: Eddy warns his pal Soap that the men they’re about to encounter are likely to be armed.
Soap: “Armed? What do you mean armed? Armed with what?”
Eddy: “Bad breath. Colorful language. Feather dusters. What do you think they’re gonna be armed with? Guns, you tit!”
BODY COUNT: Sixteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”