With visual style to spare, and a cast and plot you need a computer to keep track of, British writer-director Guy Ritchie’s first feature, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” lacks nothing in energy. This London crime-caper dramedy recalls Danny Boyle’s debut, “Shallow Grave,” in its verve, but is set in a very different, more localized milieu peopled by brutes and half-wits speaking in a Cockney version of Damon Runyonese. It falls, however, some way short of its script ambitions, relying increasingly on plot twists and outre violence to sustain pacing and interest. Business on home turf looks more likely to be warm than blazing, with little in the very male-centered movie to appeal to female auds. It’s a pranky, often entertaining but not very pleasant night out at the movies.
The film is an independently produced pickup by Polygram — after most other U.K. distribs turned it down — and is getting a big ad push in Blighty, where it opens Friday following its Aug. 23 world preem at the Edinburgh fest.
Cockney dialogue presents no major problems for North Americans, though it requires some attentiveness. (One scene, in Cockney rhyming slang, is subtitled for comic effect.) On an international level, the film falls more into the category of specialized fare than mainstream commercial, and may possibly have missed the boys-with-guns boat, even in Europe.
Set in a grubby, working-class armpit of London’s East End, the complex story centers on four layabouts who cook up a scheme to make some big money by having one of them, cardsharp Eddy (Nick Moran), enter a card game with gangster and porn king Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty).
Eddy’s pals are flatmate Bacon (Jason Statham), wheeler-dealer Tom (Jason Flemyng) and the more levelheaded Soap (Dexter Fletcher), who actually has a job as a chef. The quartet scrabble together £100,000 ($160,000) to get Eddy in on the card game.
But things go drastically wrong during the game — staged in a boxing ring and shot with virtuoso, in-your-face camerawork — and Eddy loses his bundle and ends up owing Harry half a million pounds instead, with a week’s grace before his limbs get broken. Harry’s true goal, however, is to take over a bar run by his archenemy, J.D. (Sting), who’s Eddy’s dad.
Hereon, the plot spirals off in a dizzying number of directions. Desperate to raise some quick cash to pay off Harry, Eddy happens to overhear a plan by some thuggish neighbors (Frank Harper, Steve Sweeney) to rob a marijuana factory run by Winston (Steven Mackintosh) and some louche, upper-class friends.
Eddy & Co. get there first and, after some heavy gunfire, make off with Winston’s cash and plants. The only problem is that they have accidentally come into possession of some antique guns highly desired by Hatchet Harry, whose bag man, Big Chris (British soccer bad boy Vinnie Jones), takes no prisoners. That’s just the first hour or so.
Though Ritchie’s screenplay scores a 10 for sheer complexity and cleverness, it rates much lower down the scale for comprehensibility and audience involvement. For a start, there are simply too many characters — confusingly introduced in the early stages — for the viewer to root for, even if they were likable in the first place.
Ritchie’s snazzy technique, and a busy music track of songs (plus Morricone-ish music by David Hughes and John Murphy), papers over this weakness for a while; but when the action pauses and character and dialogue are meant to take over, the movie becomes a progressively cold construct. The attempt at ironic, Runyonesque humor and phrasing is occasionally successful but does not permeate the script.
Of the central quartet, Flemyng makes the most impact as the red-haired, balding Tom, though he’s overshadowed by the colorful, more brutish characters in the huge cast, such as Moriarty’s Harry, Lenny McLean as Harry’s muscle and, especially, Jones as Big Chris, who comes into his own in the latter stages. As Eddy’s father, Sting is in for only a couple of scenes.
Pic has an overall ochrish look that fits the mood, and the mostly tawdry sets by p.d.s Iain Andrews and Eve Mavrakis convincingly paint a corner of London’s East End where Richard Burton would have felt at home in “Villain.”