Scripter-director Guy Ritchie, 31, and his even younger producer, Matthew Vaughn, 29, blow away the sophomore curse with "Snatch," a less flashy, considerably better written and more evenly cast crime seriocomedy than their surprise low-budget hit, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," that grossed $100 million worldwide.

Scripter-director Guy Ritchie, 31, and his even younger producer, Matthew Vaughn, 29, blow away the sophomore curse with “Snatch,” a less flashy, considerably better written and more evenly cast crime seriocomedy than their surprise low-budget hit, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” that grossed $100 million worldwide. Pic shows the same delight in corkscrew plotting, but is far lighter in tone, sans the obsession with guns. On the evidence of its opening weeks’ business in the U.K., “Snatch” looks set to heist similar amounts in the same markets.

Opening two years after “Lock, Stock,” almost to the day, and benefiting from a big ad-pub push locally, pic grabbed $4.6 million opening weekend on 389 prints, compared with $2.9 million on 222 by “Lock, Stock.” In its first two weeks, “Snatch” has already hauled in $11 million and, though knocked off the top spot in its second week by “Scary Movie,” looks set to at least equal the $17.3 million local gross of its predecessor.

In North America, where “Lock, Stock” was more a cult hit than a broad audience pleaser, “Snatch” faces a foggier future. Though the largely London-set movie has three American faces (Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina, Benicio Del Toro), none of them dominate the action, with Pitt especially — as a scruffy, bearded gypsy with an incomprehensible Irish accent — melding seamlessly into the large ensemble cast.

Cockney dialogue and accents are much thicker than those in “Lock, Stock,” and will pose major problems for American auds in many sectors when Screen Gems releases it in the first quarter of next year.

Originally called “Diamonds,” pic spins on the efforts of a bunch of low-life characters to retrieve a missing 84-carat stone stolen from an Antwerp jeweler. Audience immediately knows it’s in for a complex Cockney caper as the credits unroll, introducing a huge array of colorfully named characters inhabiting London’s underbelly.

Functioning as occasional v.o. narrator is Turkish (Jason Statham, one of the flatmates in “Lock, Stock”), who with his gormless pal Tommy (Stephen Graham) makes a living as an amusement arcade owner and boxing promoter. First seen talking to a figure whose identity is revealed only at the end, Turkish recaps the events since the heist of the ice in Belgium.

In the opening reels, many of the characters seem to follow separate destinies until Ritchie’s clever script draws them together in the final 40 minutes. Less domino-like in construction than “Lock, Stock,” and more evenly paced with none of the earlier pic’s tempo lulls, “Snatch” manages the trick of keeping the viewer entertained — and aware of exactly who is where — even when the movie is going in three directions at the same time.

Thanks to flavorsome casting and dialogue that sustains itself without visual flash, the point of the whole plot (the missing diamond) is virtually reduced to a McGuffin.

Three groups soon emerge. There’s Turkish and Tommy, who’ve signed up Mickey (Pitt), an Irish gypsy with a knock-out punch, to take a fall in a bare-knuckles boxing match engineered by Brick Top (Alan Ford), a psychotic gang leader.

There’s crazed Russian gangster Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), who asks well-dressed Jewish gangster Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro) to place a bet for him at a bookie’s and simultaneously arranges for black pawnshop owner Sol (Lennie James), and his bumbling associates, Vinny (Robbie Gee) and Tyrone (Ade), to rob the joint.

And there’s New Yorker Avi (Farina), who flies over to London and hires Bullet Tooth Tony (former soccer personality Vinnie Jones, launched in “Lock, Stock”) to find Franky when he comes up missing. Why? Franky was transporting the stolen diamond to Gotham.

The way in which the script juggles these various groups, and interweaves their destinies, is both entertaining and clever. The dialogue — expletive-filled but far less offensively so than in many other British gangster pix — is nimble on its feet, chucklesome rather than laff-a-minute, and written in the same kind of Cockney Runyonese that Ritchie aimed for in “Lock, Stock.”

Effect here is less self-conscious and better integrated — as are the occasional speeded-up visual effects, that advance the action rather than simply get off on their own cleverness.

Ensemble work is so good that it’s almost inimical to single out individual contributions. However, Ford’s loonily sadistic Brick Top is the most memorable.

Jones is impressive as a more gentlemanly version of his “Lock, Stock” bruiser, and Pitt has considerable fun in a kind of comic riff on his “Fight Club” persona. Less showy, but quietly holding the whole thing together, is Statham’s witty perf as Turkish, a crim who’s in way above his head.

Though pic’s reported budget of $6 million is four times that of “Lock, Stock,” the irony is that it’s a far grungier looking movie, with almost none of the earlier film’s visual razzle-dazzle, and color processing that seems bargain basement — bled of any warmth, and often infused with a sickly green tinge.

John Murphy’s score comically trades on ethnic cliches (Jewish, Russian) to put some bounce into things, and Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski’s production design evokes one after another tatty London working-class location with documentary realism.

Snatch

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Columbia (in U.K.)/Screen Gems (in U.S.) release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with SKA Films, of a Matthew Vaughn production. Produced by Vaughn. Executive producers, Peter Morton, Steve Tisch, Stephen Marks, Angad Paul, Trudie Styler. Co-producer, Michael Dreyer. Directed, written by Guy Ritchie.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe Color prints), Tim Maurice-Jones; editors, John Harris, Les Healey; music, John Murphy; production designer, Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; art director, Julie Philpott; costume designer, Verity Hawkes; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Simon Hayes; special effects supervisor, Ken Lailey; stunt coordinator, Tom Delmar; assistant director, David Reid; casting, Lucinda Syson. Reviewed at Sutton UCI 4, Surrey, England, Sept. 19, 2000. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Franky Four Fingers - Benicio Del Toro Avi - Dennis Farina Bullet Tooth Tony - Vinnie Jones Mickey O'Neil - Brad Pitt Boris the Blade - Rade Sherbedgia Turkish - Jason Statham Brick Top - Alan Ford Doug the Head - Mike Reid Vinny - Robbie Gee Sol - Lennie James Mullet - Ewen Bremner Darren - Jason Flemyng Tommy - Stephen Graham Gorgeous George - Adam Fogerty Mickey's mother - Sorcha Cusack Errol - Andy Beckwith Tyrone - Ade

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