The British caper film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has been such a success back home that Hollywood studios are now competing intensely for the privilege of funding writer/director Guy Ritchie's next effort. Despite the flaws in the film, you can understand what the studios see in Ritchie. He's the bloody British Tarantino. Sort of.
Lock, Stock begins more like a Cockney Rounders than a heist movie. Four East End lads, Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), Bacon (Jason Statham) and Eddy (Nick Moran), have wrangled an invitation to a high-rollers-only card game, chaired by Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), the neighborhood master of rackets and porn. The entry fee is a cool 100,000 pounds sterling. But the boys feel they're sure to make a sound investment of their mostly ill-gotten gains. (Among them, only Soap works for a living, hence his name.) Eddy is a born card shark, and they have no doubt he'll come home with a big score. This is a rather thick-witted quartet, however. They actually believe that a porno king named Hatchet Harry would risk losing a fair-and-square high-stakes game. Or a low-stakes game, for that matter. Harry's no gambler; he's a winner.
With a little charmingly low-tech help from a friend, Harry sends Eddy back home a half-million pounds the poorer. Eddy and his pals have one week to come up with the money, or Harry's enforcer, Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), will start cutting off their fingers. But Harry has an even more devious game in mind; he wants the bar that belongs to Eddy's father (a very muscled-up Sting). Dad can hand over the bar -- his pride and joy -- in exchange for his son's continued good health. But Dad is the tough-love type. He punches his son out when he learns of his predicament. Sting is as convincing a tough guy as the various real-life hoodlums who have small roles here, and you never suppose that in the end he'll relent to save his son.
So the desperate four set out to scare up 500,000 pounds the only way they know how: by stealing it from other criminals. Ritchie sets into motion a comedic chain of events as two sets of crooks attempt to steal from a third, all working independently of one another. There are enforcers and drug lords and tough guys galore, which is where the film's problems begin.
I hate to say that all the white guys look alike, but visually there is little to distinguish one set of pasty-faced, poorly dressed, darkly lit criminals from another. For that matter, the black guys (Caribbean drug lords) kind of look alike, too. So the film is frequently confusing: First you think, "Okay, these are the guys who got cheated at cards." Then, "No, they're the ganja farmers...." At other times the film strains for effect, as in some of its over-the-top shoot-outs, which seem to belong more to a Vietnam movie than a cheeky caper flick.
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It's in the violence that Tarantino's influence is most obvious, though there is an oppressive amount of cussin' as well -- and it is most hurtful. Ritchie takes the easy part of Reservoir Dogs -- the guns and blood -- but misfires when it comes to characterizations. Tarantino's gangsters were sharply, if thinly, drawn, and some actually had dramatic heft: Harvey Keitel's man of honor, Tim Roth's brilliant double-crosser. When those guys opened fire on each other, a bit more was at stake than pure plot machinations.
But Lock, Stock's firefights are between underdeveloped, oddly colorless characters, and you don't really care who lives or dies. Of all the characters, only Vinnie Jones's Big Chris distinguishes himself, though Sting might have as well if he'd been given more screen time.
There are some nice touches, particularly in the wide and eccentric assortment of firearms on display, which range from near blunderbusses to souped-up tommy guns. But ultimately there's less to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels than meets the eye.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Directed by Guy Ritchie. With Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Statham, Nick Moran, P.H. Moriarty and Sting.