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'Gobshites' & 'Spivs'

[whitespace] Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels
Cakes and Ale: Young hustlers, closer to Pound Puppies than Resevoir Dogs, plot to rip off more successful thieves.

'Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels' is the wildest British import since 'Trainspotting'

By Richard von Busack

The east end of london is a barrier against those waves of gentrification that are battering that city of cold shoulders. Home of Jack the Ripper and the razor-wielding Kray Brothers, the East End still daunts the visitor with a vista of weird-looking strip clubs, cardboard-box factories, slaughterhouses and broken glass. Here is one of the last great reservoirs of sinister Cockney flashiness, full of the people Mick Jagger has been trying to be all of his life.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, filmed almost entirely in the East End, lives up to its bad-boy-manqué title, though from a plot synopsis it sounds utterly worth missing. A group of four young hustlers, closer to the Pound Puppies than to the Reservoir Dogs, decide to improve their lot by ripping off some considerably more successful thieves.

Their heist sets off a daisy chain of trouble. Our affable, nonviolent antiheroes are outgunned; they've come up against career criminals of considerably more violence and aptitude. (To counterpoint the upstarts' naiveté, there are four other far more clueless criminals--middle-class kids who have a hydroponic pot farm they can't possibly defend from thieves.)

Homages to Quentin Tarantino are obvious throughout. Like Pulp Fiction, the film sports a terrific soundtrack of vintage rock--The Buckinghams' "Liar, Liar" segueing into Iggy and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" during a high-stakes poker game. Music aside, Tarantino, through no fault of his own, has been the single worst influence on modern cinema since Jack Valenti.

So why is it that Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is so ridiculously fun? The dialogue, for one thing. The film opens with a street sale of some stolen goods--salesmen Eddy (Nick Moran) and Tom (Jason Flemyng) are beguiling the crowd with items "handmade in Italy, hand-stolen in Stepney; you'll be weeping tears bigger than October cabbages if you miss out on this." Another sample, a drug dealer threatening a purveyor: "If this milk turns out to be sour, I ain't the kind of pussy to drink it." Refusing the odds on a race: "400-to-1! I'd rather bet on a three-legged rocking horse."

Better still, first-time director/writer Guy Ritchie has found impressive faces to fill out the film. Too often, I've lapsed into ennui during the latest Tarantino imitations, noting some Troy McClure-level ex-TV star as a Mafia boss. Ho hum. The usual stunt casting to add some rot to a picture--admittedly, no one looks quite as rotted as an actor who's been living on residuals for 20 years. But here are real bad asses! These are what gobshites, spivs, leg-breakers, head-butters and wide-boys are supposed to look like. And every time a corner gets turned, there's someone worse in the alley.

The movie shows a hierarchy of crime. Bad: Plank (Steve Sweeney), a bearded, crack-voiced lifer, whose face has popped up in nightmares you've had about kissing Joe Cocker. Badder: Big Chris, a debt collector, played by Vinnie Jones, a British soccer star. I don't know anything about soccer, but he certainly looks like someone who would help you find your checkbook with ease. Baddest: the enforcer "Barry the Baptist," so called because he's accidentally drowned a few people he was working over.

Barry is played by Lenny "The Guv'nor" McLean, who died before the picture was completed. If anyone has a copy of his memoirs for sale, contact me. (The book was a bestseller in the U.K., but is unavailable here.) McLean was a heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing champ, undefeated in 3,000 bouts. I bet all 3,000 ran out of the ring screaming. To quote that song "Ugly" by those Cockney wankers the Stranglers, "I don't mean rough-looking, I mean simply hideous." Oh, by the way--Sting's in this, too. Brrrrrrr.

Ritchie's photographer, Tim Maurice-Jones, leaches out the color in the film to give a spectrum that ranges from the dried-blood pall of old brick buildings to the tallow-pink of pasty faces flushed with booze and wrath. From the freeze-framed beginning of the hustlers outwitting the police to the freeze-framed open ending, this is a delightful, grotty entertainment, the wildest cinematic export from the British Isles since Trainspotting. It's obvious that Ritchie knows and loves his part of London. He has the kind of insider's knowledge of how it thrives with scams, hustles and strategies that is missing from 95 percent of all crime films.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (105 min.), directed and written by Guy Ritchie, photographed by Tim Maurice-Jones and starring Steve Sweeney, Vinnie Jones and Lenny McLean, opens March 12 at selected theaters.

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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