Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

D: Guy Ritchie
S: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Vinnie Jones

Slick but troublingly superficial and cartoonish British gangster film with a profane, convoluted script which emphasises violent comedy over moral meaning. Young gambler Nick Moran loses not only his and his three friends' stake money to nasty mobster P.H. Moriarty, but lands all and sundry in debt to the tune of half a million pounds. The resultant attempt to raise the cash brings the foursome into contact with a variety of criminal lowlifes and drug dealers and causes a series of misunderstandings which result in violent bloodshed at every turn.

Though often funny and generally entertaining, there is something hollow about Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. At its core is an Enid Blyton adventure with swearing and machine guns. The central characters are four naughty schoolboys who seem to blunder their way through some very dangerous situations with nary a moment of genuine danger, and at the end of the film the only punishment they receive for their acts of villainy is a paternal slap on the wrist.

On the surface, the film is slickly done. Using sepia-toned stock and a variety of film speeds, Ritchie succeeds in giving the film a unique look and feel which helps to make it all seem like harmless fun. It is fast moving and buoyed by an upbeat score. The cast are talented performers, and work well within the framework of the film to provide it with its gags. The script is certainly eventful, and works a variety of sub plots together with evident glee. It has its share of funny moments, and peppers the proceedings with regular doses of profane dialogue, bumbling supporting characters straight out of The Three Stooges, and violent mayhem aplenty to amuse the punters; and it is amusing on a purely superficial level.

Yet there is a definite lack of depth here. The characters and situations offer themselves easily to more serious treatment, but the film deliberately empties itself of all moral consequence by emphasising the cartoonish elements. There are no real characters in the film other the debt collector played by soccer bad boy Vinnie Jones. Stunningly enough, he registers the only believable, sympathetic characterisation in the film, and if nothing else, the film proves that he is a better actor than Eric Cantona (Elizabeth). The rest are paper-thin caricatures of nefarious underworld types, more informed by Quentin Tarantino than John MacKenzie's The Long Good Friday to which it was inappropriately compared by British reviewers.

Though it deals with gangsters and the London underworld, unlike The Long Good Friday, the film is wilfully vapid and deliberately unreal. It lacks any sense of morality and evinces no social or psychological insight whatsoever. Even Tarantino, from whom it clearly takes more inspiration, has proved that it is possible to be intelligent and entertaining with films like Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown, where the viewer was never allowed to forget the meaning of the characters' actions and asked to emotionally empathise with them. Writer/Director Guy Ritchie has merely opted for clever and funny.

The heroes of the film lack foundation, and so operate in a vacuum where nothing they do will have any effect on anyone they care about. The token gesture towards this kind of stable human centre is the character of Moran's father, played by Sting. Yet he is distant and uncaring in a way which suggests a world of adult responsibilities which is still beyond the comprehension of these happy-go-lucky gamblers who refuse pot in favour of pints and carry out acts of theft and assault with more calm than the supposedly 'real' villains who surround them. It is a pure adolescent fantasy, a Winnie-the-Pooh for the Trainspotting generation where the decisions are made by boys who know more than their toys, but are not fully cognizant of the big bad world just yet.

This is ideal 'late night after the pub' fare for the undemanding video renter (preferably accompanied by several similarly inebriated male companions); a fast moving, entertaining trip through a wonderland of bad boy behaviour where nothing can touch you and reality is a distant dream. More discerning viewers will note its technical proficiency, and if they are aware of the humour of it, admire Jones' performance, but may find this little reward depending on their mood at the time of viewing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.