The harder they come, the bigger the gun

Snatch | (18) Guy Ritchie, 102 mins
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The Independent Culture

One of the defining moments in Snatch happens when Vinnie Jones, who plays a character called Bullet Tooth Tony, finds himself threatened in a pub by three gun-wielding black men wearing balaclavas. Jones says, "Which one of you is the dick and which ones are the balls?", and "the dick's not always the clever one", and "you've come sniffing for pussy", and "there ain't no pussy around here", and, finally, "are you shrivelling?" Jones, we can see, is not shrivelling. Quite the opposite. Jones is hard. Jones is engorged. Then he takes out his huge gun.

One of the defining moments in Snatch happens when Vinnie Jones, who plays a character called Bullet Tooth Tony, finds himself threatened in a pub by three gun-wielding black men wearing balaclavas. Jones says, "Which one of you is the dick and which ones are the balls?", and "the dick's not always the clever one", and "you've come sniffing for pussy", and "there ain't no pussy around here", and, finally, "are you shrivelling?" Jones, we can see, is not shrivelling. Quite the opposite. Jones is hard. Jones is engorged. Then he takes out his huge gun.

This is a film in which people are always flashing their huge weapons. Someone even whips a meat cleaver out of his trousers. The direction is jumpy, priapic - I can't remember when I last saw a camera used with such phallic urgency. The best thing I can say about this film is that Guy Ritchie never flags; he never goes soft on you. He pumps you full of images, punches you with them until you're reeling. A man travels from New York to London - you see a hand on a phone, a New York taxi door opening, a drink being downed in a plane, Concorde streaking across the sky, a passport being stamped, a Hackney cab. This all takes about two seconds. It's an ecstatic tumble of images, so slick and powerful it makes you want to laugh.

The story starts off when some men dressed as Hasidic Jews steal a diamond. Suddenly, we're in scummy London, where all sorts of lowlife characters are running after this glassy gem. At first, the plot seems insanely complicated. Who are these creeps, and how do they relate to each other? They are black, white, fat, thin, Russian, American, Cockney, Irish, young, old, well-dressed and filthy. They range from Brad Pitt to Mike Reid of EastEnders. Jason Statham is a boxing promoter of sorts. Pitt is an Irish gypsy. After about five minutes, you realise you don't actually need to know what's happening. This is a film of moments, of stunning clips. There's a clip of Brad Pitt smashing a guy in the face. There's a clip of a car smashing a guy in the face. It's cartoonish. It might feel like you've watched 102 minutes of ads strung together. But what's the product?

Perhaps the product is pure, simple threat. We start off with Jason Statham, a man who promotes bare-knuckle fights. He says, "It's an unlicensed boxing match, not a tickling competition." He is, by far, the nicest guy in the film. He's the one you worry about. He answers to Brick Top, a leathery dandy with stained teeth played with shocking verve by Alan Ford. Statham is worried that Ford will "pull my pants down, grease me up and aim for penetration". Then, chillingly, we see a man who frightens Ford. On and on we go, flashing through this zoo, watching hard men defer to harder men, hearing the threats, watching as the knives get bigger, as the guns are flashed like sexual organs.

Brad Pitt plays Mickey, a man who lives on a horrid caravan site. To say he plays a pantomime Irishman might be a little unfair - his incomprehensible voice, greasy hair, hard, tattooed body and luridly filthy clothes are perfect in this context. The fact he's impossible to understand becomes a running joke. Like the crackhead Pitt played in Tony Scott's True Romance, Mickey looks loose, unhinged - you can tell he's a wrong 'un by his hand gestures alone. It turns out that he's more or less the best bare-knuckle fighter in the world. He belts people with such staged underclass vigour, it's almost farcical.

The threats get more and more lurid, the sky darkens, the rain falls, the blood flows. The camera serves up violence summarily, casually. There are moments when the casualness of the violence rips a reluctant laugh out of you. Keen to increase the level of savagery, someone calls Bullet Tooth Tony, so called because, having been shot, he went to a dentist and fashioned teeth from the bullets that shot him. When Tony's phone goes, he is in the act of smashing someone's head in a car door. He answers formally, politely. A comic moment. Across town, in another car, a black guy reveals a thick black gun. "This is a shotgun," he says. The response, from one of his partners in crime, is, "It's a f--king anti-aircraft gun". We smile, grimly. Dick joke. You might say that this is a film all about penises, that it is homoerotic. It's guy-on-guy, all the way through. Where are the women? You see about four of them, fleetingly. As Jones says, there ain't no pussy here. The title might almost be ironic.

Guy Ritchie has moved on, in terms of technique, since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. There are moments here that will remind you of Scorsese and Tarantino. Like Scorsese, he loves to freeze the action, to caption it, to look at it from different angles, to salivate over it. Like Tarantino, he gets his cast of creeps and scumbags to talk about trivial things during tense moments. You keep thinking of Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Reservoir Dogs. I was reminded of Tarantino's own line, as Mr Brown from Reservoir Dogs, "Dick dick dick dick dick dick dick", part of his interpretation of Madonna's song "Like a Virgin", in which the singer, having slept with endless men, finally meets her knight in shining armour. (Who would have thought he'd be British?)

But Snatch does not feel like a British film. It feels like an American film with British characters in it. This does not provide an insight into London in the way that, say, Goodfellas tells you about suburban New York. On the other hand, it's not a bad film. It's slick, vicious, and sneering. It's all dick dick dick. Watching it, I didn't feel like a virgin, myself. I felt I'd been through it all before.

Gilbert Adair returns next week

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