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Playing Cool

With Snatch, director Guy Ritchie desperately wants to be the Tarantino of the Thames

There's definitely something weird going on in the British pop scene. Years after tasteful Yanks allowed classic works such as Saturday Night Fever and Grease to dissolve into our vast iconic array, villainous limey programmers were still hyping them over there. Thus, the dual plagues of disco and '50s rock were never halted, and far worse, it seems that a significant portion of the populace is still getting its kicks playing variations on Urban Cowboy! Obviously, such malfeasance must spring from a common source, emanating through some diabolical figurehead bent on the cultural decimation of an entire people. But who?

Travolta.

Of course, an artist of his stature eventually must evolve beyond "Stayin' Alive," "Greased Lightnin'" and "Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places." So the former Sweathog accepted the invitation of a former video-store clerk to play a bit of slick bang-bang, and a tacky new phenomenon was born. Quite obviously, Guy Ritchie -- then a director of promo spots for pop groups -- was paying very close attention to the early-'90s double whammy of Reservoir Dogs and the umpteenth Travolta renaissance known as Pulp Fiction. Fascinated by his newfound opportunity to blend ruthless violence with brash cutting and cartoonish characters, he emerged with a big, big hit -- so big even Sting deigned to endorse it with an appearance (which was probably wise, since his wife was producing) -- called Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Blame or credit for Ritchie's rise clearly belongs to Tarantino's giddy shots-heard-round-the-world.

"One-Punch" Mickey O'Neil: If it weren't for Brad Pitt's character, this flick would be down for the count.
"One-Punch" Mickey O'Neil: If it weren't for Brad Pitt's character, this flick would be down for the count.

So now we have Snatch. This second installment in the Ritchie canon greets us with a bunch of phallic guns -- note the pistol proudly frozen for a subtle moment with the director's credit -- and carries on much in the vein of Lock, Stock, with a bunch of angry hooligans running around shooting each other for no particular reason. The director clearly loves working with insipid caricatures; if you dug it the first time, you're bound to enjoy it this time, as Ritchie has enhanced his savage ballet with a few new quirks. Not only are we treated to repeated proclamations that the vicious kingpin chops up his enemies and feeds them to his pigs (surely a prescient lift from the forthcoming Hannibal), but we also get an irritable Jewish jeweler, a nearly indestructible Russian gangster and a trio of bumbling black amateurs who can't help creating wacky trouble. In the case of the latter, it's clear that Ritchie has been visiting the video store for doses of the Cosby-Poitier caper flicks from the '70s. In other words, he's growing. Lucky us.

Narrated by a thick boxing promoter called Turkish (Jason Statham), the movie assumes we are very, very stupid and holds our hands while introducing us, one by one, to its motley lot of losers, thugs and morons. With all the patience and delicacy of a starved rat on amphetamines, Ritchie rolls out his list of characters, which reads more or less like a roster of rejected thugs from Dick Tracy. Most fearsome is Brick Top (Alan Ford), the "unhinged, pig-feeding gangster" who makes his fine living fixing fights while happily stuffing subordinates into his pocket. Aided by his henchman, Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones, daunting here as in Lock, Stock), he's got a score to settle with Turkish and his even thicker friend Tommy (Stephen Graham), whose fighter has been dropped by a wild gypsy named "One-Punch" Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt, with tattoos).

Alas, if only sly Frankie Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) had stuck to the crooked and narrow -- delivering a huge 84-karat diamond to New York kingpin Avi (Dennis Farina) and depositing smaller stones with the Jewish wanna-be Doug the Head (Mike Reid) in London -- everybody could have settled down and played nice. But Frankie's gambling addiction (gently underscored by quick, loud montages set to "Viva Las Vegas") leads him into the temptation of Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), a wily "Cossack cunt" who convinces him to bet on the fights. Hired by Boris to off the high roller and collect his winnings, two pawnshop owners (Robbie Gee, Lennie James) get mixed up in the action, until all sorts of chaos and hilarity and murder ensue. There's even an irrelevant and mean scene involving Ewen Bremner to please the Trainspotting crowd.

While it's thudding and tiresome, Snatch is not entirely without merit. The locals certainly hold the work together (basically boys playing shoot-'em-up -- cute, in a sad way), but it's the introduction of Pitt as the gypsy -- or "pikey" -- bare-knuckle boxer that gives the film a much-needed lift. Pitt seems determined to capture Johnny Depp's crown of "most versatile young actor," and while that's a ways off, his curiously accented (though utterly comprehensible) Mickey is a confident step in that direction. Watching him spar, a bare-chested and sweaty retread of Fight Club's Tyler Durden, one is tempted to redub this movie Slight Flub, but his rich and rough performance overrides derision. The essence of the gypsy camp and the vital presence of his "Ma" (Sorcha Cusack) add a sense of humanity, however slight, that Lock, Stock sorely lacked.

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