Blessings upon Brad Pitt for using his decades of hotness to build a filmography that is consistently weird. Let us not fool ourselves: It is certainly easier to flirt with bizarreness if you also happen to be appallingly handsome. If you have the roguish smile that Pitt does, or that chiseled, angular jaw, or the oceanic blue of his eyes—not as staggering as Paul Newman’s, of course, because no one could compare to that man—but still, pretty damn blue! If you can get your body fat down to whatever zilch of a percentage, as Pitt did, to play a fantastical anarchist, or if you can build up, as Pitt also did, the believably used abs of a Hollywood stuntman. If you can make constant noshing while planning various heists look appealing rather than slovenly, or if you can pull off myriad ridiculous hairstyles (a tousled wig for a vampire, an array of highlights for the devil) because they’re still paired with that face. To be sure, Pitt is operating at an advantage that only genetics, luck, and very subtle upkeep can provide. But that doesn’t make him any less charming of an actor, or any less magnetic of a presence, or any less committed to getting as feral, bizarre, or unintelligible as a role might require.
Yes, this is an essay about Snatch.
To call Guy Ritchie’s filmography uneven is about right, tending toward generous. The Gentlemen is staggeringly racist. Aladdin had any appeal whatsoever because of the chemistry between Mena Massoud and Will Smith, not because of Ritchie’s wooden execution. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which read more like a Robin Hood origin story than one about the Knights of the Round Table, needed more shirtlessness from Charlie Hunnam. “What about The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?” you are probably thinking right now, and you are correct; that movie is practically perfect, and every week when Film Twitter decides to start another viral thread about the need for a sequel, I like and retweet, for I am not a monster. But the Sherlock Holmes movies are way too long. RocknRolla is fine-ish. It’s best that we not speak of Swept Away. And so what remains, aside from Ritchie’s auspicious debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is his more ambitious, more hectic, and overall more more sophomore film, Snatch.
In hindsight, perhaps Snatch was when we should have known that Ritchie would always be chasing the next thing, Christopher Nolan style—always trying to “dream a little bigger, darling,” always one-upping himself, always getting zanier with it, always engaging in a little bit more racism than was necessary. Side to side with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which came out two years before, Snatch was grander in scope. Its narrative bounced around the globe in the shadowy corners of various criminal underworlds, from New York City to London to Antwerp. Everyone in the sprawling cast was doing some kind of accent (Benicio del Toro’s throaty staccato, enunciating every syllable in “Where are the stones?”), or working some kind of deranged glare (Vinnie Jones has always been menacing, but his Bullet Tooth Tony was particularly frightening). The dry humor that would turn into such a key component of Jason Statham’s acting style was laced throughout his role as boxing promoter and aspiring gambling entrepreneur Turkish, while Dennis Farina added his own exhausted-New-Yorker bona fides as jeweler Cousin Avi, a character who you could edit into the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems with barely a hiccup.
And yet even amid all this enjoyable chaos—excellent soundtrack choices from Oasis and Massive Attack; the straightforward silliness of watching Stephen Graham’s Tommy chase his misbehaving, diamond-eating dog; and the frenetic editing style of Jon Harris, who would later work on Layer Cake, another modern British crime classic—once Pitt enters the picture, he is all the impact Snatch requires. As the bare-knuckle boxer “One Punch” Mickey O’Neil, very little of what Pitt says is decipherable (a choice by Ritchie, once he realized Pitt’s London accent wasn’t cutting it). Similarly inscrutable are the other actors, including Jason Flemyng and Sorcha Cusack, who also play Irish Travellers, a nomadic group who finally secured recognition of their ethnic status by the Irish government in 2017. But Pitt’s physicality has always been one of his strongest assets as an actor, and the vibe of his Mickey—assured, smart-alecky, and deeply principled—is so honed-in that no one else in Snatch comes close.
On the one hand, the sneaky methodologies and lilting cadence of the Irish Travellers seem like a disrespectful portrait of that community, and hints at the broad stereotypes Ritchie would return to later on in his career (see: the thorough Orientalism of The Gentlemen). But on the other hand, that characterization allowed Pitt to be hot and weird at the same time, a combination that would unlock the next phase of the actor’s career. Think of how fluidly he takes off his shirt, snarkily says to his match opponent “You stay until the job’s done,” and then knocks the bigger man out with one punch. Think of Mickey’s shit-eating grin when Turkish and Tommy try to negotiate the terms of an upcoming fight with him, and his shrug-and-smirk combination when he refuses to throw a fight. Think of Mickey fighting to reach his mother trapped in a burning trailer, his lean, sooty body silhouetted in the fire’s raging glow, and the well-executed manner of his revenge in the film’s concluding moments. “A pikey reaction is quite a fucking thing,” and Mickey’s giggle and hop over the dead body of his mother’s killer is the perfect exit for a Pitt performance that demands every instant of your attention.
Pitt had been hot before (Thelma & Louise, A River Runs Through It, Seven) and Pitt had been weird before (True Romance, 12 Monkeys), but the one-two punch of Snatch and Fight Club would pivot his work in another fused direction. You don’t get that surprisingly self-aware guest spot on Friends, or the silliness of those goofy dance moves in Burn After Reading, or that ludicrous attempt at an Italian accent in Inglourious Basterds without Mickey O’Neil. That capability for absurdity would also make Pitt’s more contemplative, melancholic, and tough-minded work hit all the harder, whether he was struggling with his legacy as an infamous outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or exuding strict mid-century patriarchy in The Tree of Life, or railing against the lies we tell about America in Killing Them Softly, or navigating the allure of toxic masculinity and the infinite emptiness of space in Ad Astra. We might need to thank Guy Ritchie for all that, and for the surprisingly long-reaching impact of Snatch.