Film: Welcome to the family, son

The Big Picture

LOCK, STOCK AND TWO

SMOKING BARRELS (18) DIRECTOR: GUY RITCHIE

107 MINS

STARRING NICK MORAN, JASON FLEMYNG, DEXTER FLETCHER

Any film-maker who hires Vinnie Jones to play the sole embodiment of morality must surely be either misguided or depraved. The 29-year-old British writer-director Guy Ritchie is actually neither. If his first feature, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is anything to go by, he is a firm traditionalist. The picture is loud and jazzy, and relies on that very modern, very flippant technique of using violence as the punchline to a joke, or a joke as the full-stop after an act of violence. Under this scab-hard surface hides a tender skin; the conflict between the two textures, the friction between form and content, is what gives the film its occasional dynamic moments.

Despite possessing perhaps the worst title in the history of cinema, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a creditable attempt at rescuing a home-grown product from American influence. The British crime movie has a distinguished history, but from recent genre efforts like Dad Savage and Hard Men, you would think that gangsters in cinema didn't exist BT - Before Tarantino.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels does its fair share of looting, and there are too many shots of men in suits striding down urban streets to convince you that someone on the production team didn't wear out their copy of Reservoir Dogs studying its credit sequence.

But most of the sources pillaged or referenced are closer to home. PH Moriarty, whose face has the look of sweaty wax, is cast as a porn baron called Hatchet Harry; the same actor played a hood named Razors in The Long Good Friday. Another actor, Jason Flemyng, has clearly been made up to resemble James Fox in Performance. Most of the close-ups are lit ominously from beneath, so that the cast look like children shining torches under their chin to appear demonic. At other times, Tim Maurice-Jones's unsparing photography makes the human face as coarse and mottled as the Bethnal Green brickwork.

The result of this stylistic confusion is an almost surreal atmosphere of dislocation. The movie is set in London, yet there are no people on the streets, and no police, even following an afternoon of heavy gunfire. The only representative of law, at least until the coda, is a traffic warden who is beaten unconscious in a cheap, if effective, bid for audience sympathies. The film's version of East London is further divorced from reality by faded, yellowing filters which bring the images to the point of sepia, a tone favoured by Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime and Breaking the Waves.

If the colour suggests nostalgia too, that's no accident. The film's plot is driven by a quest for money - a debt of pounds 500,000 owed to Hatchet Harry by the young chancer Eddy (Nick Moran) following a disastrous card game. Predictably, the cash is a McGuffin; what the film is really interested in is the fabric of male relationships. The characters are divided into gangs of professionals and amateurs. Eddy and his pals straddle that divide, while their next-door neighbours are vicious thugs who are planning to rob another unofficial family of criminals, a trio of public schoolboys who have reinvented themselves as drug dealers.

It is a measure of how little regard Ritchie has for his plot that Eddy learns of this scheme by employing that cunning underworld trick of pressing your ear against a dividing wall. This portrait of volatile factions as families in a soap opera has a parochial charm about it which echoes the Ealing comedies. The writing is nicely nuanced, plugging into the complications of rhyming slang and coded colloquialisms - "Bob's your uncle" unnecessarily but comically extended to "Robert's your father's brother", for instance.

Ritchie can get carried away with his fondness for the criminal fraternity; the Liverpudlian burglar who refuses to wear a stocking because it might cramp his new perm is an idiosyncrasy too far. And he can be a maddeningly literal-minded writer - the wonderful moment when a burning man comes tearing out of a pub and disappears into the night is perfect as an absurd visual non-sequitur; a flashback which explains the flames sucks the magic out of the conceit.

Ritchie's direction is ostentatiously showy. He slows the film-speed down, cranks it up, and inserts freeze-frames on a whim. For special occasions, he has a deluxe freeze-frame in which all action is halted save for one element - a wisp of blue cigar smoke snaking out of a frozen tableau. These tricks seem calculated to distract you from the film's sentimental subtext, which displays a yearning for the security of family - any family, so long as it is exclusively male. As well as the little pockets of emotionally retarded men, there are two pairs of real fathers and sons whose relationships are gently contrasted. Eddy's father JD (Sting) is a bar-owner with mobster connections. JD isn't very tactile with his son, unless you count the moment when he punches him in the mouth.

Two minor characters, also father and son, form the emotional nucleus of the film. Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) is London's most feared debt collector, a reputation which is unaffected by the presence on his rounds of his young son Little Chris (Peter McNicholl). The relationship between Chrises Big and Little provides the sole touchstone of stability, and the only evidence of love. Significantly, the movie plays every act of brutality for laughs until it comes time for Big Chris to exact revenge on the man who has threatened his son - then the camera fixes on Chris's face, a gnarled mask of fury as he persistently attempts to slam his car door while the offending fellow's head is jammed in it.

As the film would have it, the relationship between a father and a son is the only thing worth defending. This insular perspective is even more jarring than the sight of empty streets. You will be accustomed by now to the reflex homophobia of gangsters, a tendency both indulged and satirised by the film. I suspect that Ritchie made Hatchet Harry a porn king as an excuse to include shots of his desk littered with marrow-sized rubber phalluses, one of which he uses for the same purpose that Al Capone wielded a baseball bat in The Untouchables.

But where are the women? The picture feels unformed without them. There is an elderly matriarch who oversees the card game, and a stoned girl who gets to rise from her stupor and fire a machine gun.

The only time the camera seems overly interested in a female character is during a shot of a studded leather thong clasped between a woman's buttocks. And they say there are no decent roles for women. Surely I can't be the only person wondering what the wives and girlfriends are getting up to while their men are beating each other's brains out with dildos.

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