With Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie Changed British Cinema

There’s a famous review of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting that includes the line, “Hollywood come in, please, your time is up. Not only can we compete, we can knock you straight to the ground.” The Cool Britannia phenomenon of the 1990s saw British culture in various forms – Danny Boyle, Damien Hirst, the Spice Girls, In-Yer-Face theater – push their way to the forefront of worldwide entertainment, reviving the Swinging London of the ‘60s for the Gen X crowd. This was pop culture that was impeccably cool, highly stylized, and extremely British, with its roots proudly embedded in art of decades past. Before the new millennium blew the doors open for a decade of Bush-era malaise, debut director Guy Ritchie flung himself into the spotlight and brought Cool Britannia into the gutter.

1999’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was often dismissed as a Tarantino wannabe, a Cockney gangster ensemble piece with fast-moving dialogue and stylistic flair that hoped to fill the spot of “We have Pulp Fiction at home” for the Brits. Over the years, Ritchie has become a divisive figure, with his vocal defenders often struggling to be heard over cries of “sellout” and questions over whether or not he’s actually any good at his job. As one of the former, the allure of Ritchie’s kinetic and knowingly absurd blokes’ tales has always been evident. Ritchie has been Ritchie since the beginning, and not even Disney live-action remakes or movies with Madonna can change that.

Lock, Stock is a heist movie where several sets of crooked losers stumble over one another in the hunt to make it rich and stay alive. Small-time criminals Eddy (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher) and Bacon (Jason Statham) are mostly harmless boys whose plans to make money on a card game end with them owing £500,000 to Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), a local mob boss and porn baron whose predilection for violence backs up his nickname. They have a week to pay it back or face the nose-breaking consequences. Cue a cavalcade of jackassery that includes drugs, antique guns, a lot of corpses, and Sting.

It’s easy to ding Ritchie for his love of blokes, the kinds of pub-dwelling wannabe tough guys who seem more important through the narrative than they often are. The trick lies in assuming he’s taking them as seriously as you think he is. The men of Lock, Stock, regardless of their power or weapons, are all patently ridiculous. The central quartet suck at their chosen occupations and get by mostly on dumb luck. Their frenetic dialogue is the stuff of boys who read James Bond and thought it was too posh, but lack the verve to embody his coolness. Shockingly, you are supposed to think they’re stupid, even though Ritchie’s affection for his losers is clear.

The ensemble lives in a fantasy of East End London where everyone is drunk, women don’t seem to exist, and everyone is the bastard descendent of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday (that film casts a long shadow over Ritchie’s work, although Ritchie has always been more concerned with the delusion of gangster life than the reality.) The desaturated cinematography, shot through a camera that seldom stops moving, is only made slightly more manic by the introduction of booze and cannabis. Being a gangster often seems fun in Ritchie’s worlds, but you have to act like a real joker to get through it.

The violence is intense but also knowingly over-the-top, the sort of blood-and-bone extravaganza that you can’t help but laugh at because it’s so morbidly ridiculous. Every scene involving these men is a gunpowder barrel waiting to explode because none of these faux gangsters has a modicum of self-awareness or control. How could you not laugh when every supposedly intricately planned moment ends like a toddler tantrum? Anything goes with these blokes, and so it is with Ritchie’s camera. Ritchie gets criticized often for “style over substance”, but his characters are so often men who are all talk and no trousers, so why not reflect that in the direction?

Ritchie’s films have gotten slicker, more Hollywood, and sometimes too ludicrous for even him to pull off, as anyone who has seen Revolver can confirm. But he’s remained far more fascinating and watchable than the skeptics claim, whether it’s his excellent blending of historical drama and pulp action comedy with his Sherlock Holmes movies, the GQ sleek allure of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or his successful detour into intense war drama with last year’s The Covenant. Many wannabe Ritchies followed in his footsteps with tawdry gangster flicks that forgot to poke holes their gun-toting heroes’ illusions and instead took them all far too seriously. The trick is to never let the spark of the guns blind you from the stupidity of these worlds. Being cool is one thing, but it’s far more interesting to puncture that illusion with parody. 

“Lock , Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” is available for digital rental or purchase.

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