Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

(Guy Ritchie, UK, 1998)


The sure-fire sign that one is watching a British independent film of the '90s: close-up portrait shots of the main characters filmed wackily through either a locker, a suitcase, a boiling pot or a toilet bowl.

Trainspotting (1996) set the pace for such visual zaniness, and writer-director Guy Ritchie's frenetic and spirited Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels carries on the trend zestfully. Freeze-frames, fast editing to music, a performance style compromised largely of histrionic postures and colourful verbal abuse – it's all here.

Publicists and reviewers had an easy time comparing this film to both Trainspotting and the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino (especially Pulp Fiction, 1994). It tends more to the latter than the former, since it ultimately does not have a serious bone in its body. It is a flip, superficial movie that one would be tempted to label amoral if it were not so captivating and entertaining.

The plot starts out simply, but steadily becomes a complicated, sometimes confusing maze of coincidences and crossovers. Four likely lads – Eddy (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Statham) and Soap (Dexter Fletcher) – cook up a cool plan to absolve themselves of a huge gambling debt owed to local crime boss, Hatchet Harry (P. H. Moriarty). The plan hinges on the fact that the boys' unlovely next-door neighbours, Dog (Frank Harper) and Plank (Steve Sweeney), are about to nick a vast stash of drugs and money.

There have been many hopefully-funky action-thrillers (some of them Australian) that play around with the premise of several groups of characters chasing a central, much-desired, criminal cache. By cleverly multiplying the key objects in its plot (guns, drugs, cash) and by contriving some quite brilliant clinches that keep changing the balance of power, Ritchie's film succeeds with this narrative game better than most.

Although it has a very American flavour in many respects, the film milks its best laughs from the contrast of intense violence and dread with a highly British sense of frazzled incredulity. The most endearing refrain of the piece is the way in which every turning point situation – always more fantastic and gruesome than the last – brings groans and cries of "what the fuck is this?" from all participants.

One of the defining moments for me from late '90s mainstream cinema is the scene in Out of Sight (1998) where a dumb thug trips on the stairs of a mansion – shooting himself in the head and instantly dying. This was the big laugh of the film, partly because the character involved was such a zero.

Every single violent threat, gun-shot wound or death in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is designed to be hilarious in a similar way – and consequently, almost none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Only the devoted dad Big Chris (football star Vinnie Jones), with his abiding concern for son Little Chris (Peter McNicholl), strikes an emotive chord.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is not a film you will think much about afterwards, but while it lasts it is a riot of black humour. One thing is for certain: if you want to see the movie that film school students all over the world desperately emulated during the declining years of the '90s, this is it.

MORE Ritchie: Snatch

© Adrian Martin November 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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