Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (United Kingdom, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The tale of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is the most improbable of success stories. After having difficulty securing a financial backer, Guy Ritchie's debut feature became one of the biggest home-grown successes in the U.K. last year. Now, with an appropriate push from Gramercy, the North American distributor, the film is about to take its shot at success on this side of the Atlantic. Those who sample Ritchie's movie will find it to be a nearly-perfect blend of violence and comedy, a kind of O. Henry meets Q. Tarantino where the irony drips more freely than the blood.

For viewers of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, two of the first movies to leap to mind will be Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But, while numerous similarities are in evidence, Ritchie denies having been influenced by Tarantino. Instead, he cites his primary inspiration as the taut, brilliant 1980 British gangster film, The Long Good Friday. One can also readily assume that Trainspotting figured into the mix (several scenes and photographic tricks are lifted almost verbatim), and the combination of humor and bloodshed recalls Elmore Leonard's approach (see, in particular, Out of Sight). Considering that Tarantino's movies, no matter how expertly done, are largely derivative, it's entirely feasible that Ritchie could have come upon the same formula independently, and, since it's in vogue, there's little surprise that his movie has found an audience.

Surface likenesses aside, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is actually a kinder, gentler motion picture than Pulp Fiction. While there's as much violence, Ritchie's method is different. All of the most vicious acts occur off screen. We see the ramifications, but we miss the genuine brutality. This effectively distances the viewer from the bloodshed, allowing us to see the proceedings in an almost cartoon-like light. It's easier to laugh when the baggage of excessive, graphic violence is taken out of the equation. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels contains gore, but its presentation is neither gut-wrenching nor intense.

If the criminal ranks in London are comprised of losers like this, it's a wonder that anyone gets away with anything. Eddy (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), and Bacon (Jason Statham) are a quartet of con-artists and thieves who have scraped together enough money to enter a high-stakes poker game run by the ominously-named Hatchet Harry Lonsdale (P.H. Moriarty, who appeared in The Long Good Friday). Eddy is an expert poker player who, because of his ability to read people's reactions, almost never loses in an honest match. But Harry doesn't believe in playing fair. With the help of his nasty assistant, Barry the Baptist (the late Lenny McLean), Harry has fixed the game. When Eddy loses a huge round, he finds himself half a million pounds in debt, with only seven days for him and his friends to get the money. So they turn to the only possible solution: stealing from their criminal neighbors, who are led by a tough guy named Dog (Frank Harper). Dog and his crew are about to rob a group of marijuana growers who work for a local drug baron (Vas Blackwood). Also thrown into the mix are a couple of cowardly and incompetent thieves, a deadpan hitman (soccer star Vinnie Jones) and his equally deadpan son (Peter McNicholl), Eddy's irate father (Sting), a perpetually stoned girl (Suzy Ratner), and an unfortunate cop.

Since the film relies heavily on ironic plot twists, it would be unfair to reveal more. Suffice it to say that all of the above represents only the barest of background information. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is appreciating the way in which the story unfolds, using both expected and unanticipated turns to enhance the comic flavor. To the very end, the movie manages to be unpredictable, and it never loses its sense of humor. Many caper comedies have a tendency to run out of steam before the final act; that isn't the case here, and the coup de grace is impeccable.

When it comes to characters, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels boasts no fewer than 22 significant roles. Many of the actors are not recognizable faces. In fact, a few of them are making their motion picture debuts. Others, like Jason Flemyng (Deep Rising), Dexter Fletcher (The Man Who Knew Too Little), Steven Mackintosh (The Land Girls), and (of course) Sting, may be familiar to frequent movie-goers. For the most part, everyone does a solid job essaying one of the various inept thugs or criminals. Those familiar with the British soap "Eastenders" will find that any of the characters from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels would fit into the neighborhood of Albert Square with little difficulty.

Ritchie's style is direct and accomplished. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels keeps moving; it's kinetic, in-your-face filmmaking. This may be the first movie to capture the reckless exuberance of Pulp Fiction without seeming like a blatant rip-off. With memorable witticisms sprinkled throughout, the dialogue is at least as clever as the plot structure. (For example, one character remarks that he expected an easy job not "a bad day in Bosnia." Another individual, quoting a line attributed to Winston Churchill, comments that "golf is the perfect way to spoil a good walk.") Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels has plenty of laughs and a few surprises to offer to all but the most squeamish of viewers. It's a superior thriller made with the guts and gusto that too many recycled entries into the genre fail to exhibit.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (United Kingdom, 1998)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1999-03-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1