No. 1 With a Bullet

Written and directed by Guy Ritchie

Immodesty becomes Guy Ritchie, the British writer/director who makes a jovial debut on a Jovian scale in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In this wayward gangster comedy set in London's East End, Ritchie cooks up a gleefully improbable tale out of mismatched ingredients -- a rigged card game, a hydroponics marijuana factory and a pair of antique rifles. Every device he uses to tell this whopper calls attention to itself. There's spritzing narration, rambunctious camera trickery, music tracks that rove from James Brown to Mikis Theodorakis, and a sardonic Tarantino curlicue that detonates an outrageous tableau (a guy leaving a bar with a flaming chest) and explains it a half-hour or so later.

Yet rather than work as a turnoff, Ritchie's showmanship -- half macho braggadocio, half emotion-tinged bravura -- slaps and tickles the viewer into submission. He takes a group of not-so-goodfellas, whose idea of fun is setting farts afire, and, against all odds, makes them lively and engaging.

Eddie the card sharp (Nick Moran), Soap the chef (Dexter Fletcher), Bacon the small-time scam artist (Jason Statham) and Tom the hustler of stolen goods (Jason Flemyng) are men in their late 20s who carry on like hapless, hopeful teenagers. Getting to know them is akin to sorting out bunkmates. What makes you warm to the bunch is their guttural bonhomie. They're never more vivid than when they're pooling their feelings -- their foolish elation at a job medium-well-done or their primal hatred of parking cops. Eddie is a handsome fellow hiding anxiety behind a poker face, Soap a scowler who keeps his hands clean, Bacon a self-styled hard guy, and Tom a fast talker with ideas too big for his muscles or his brain. Ritchie fixes them in our mind and sets them in motion without making us feel that we know everything about them. Suddenly, Tom will blurt out a confidence scheme to fleece the sexually kinky, or Soap will unveil fearsome cutlery and proclaim, "Guns for show, knives for a pro." The flourishes fill out instead of contradict their personalities. In its own frivolous way, the movie demonstrates just how confusing overgrown kids can get because they haven't settled on an understanding of themselves.

Not that this film shows anybody growing up. With childish optimism and teen-ish desperation, these young men are counting on Eddie to make them rich with a big win at a high-stakes card game. They've put nearly everything else on hold, including, apparently, any relationships with women. So I was relieved to discover, courtesy of reporter Matt Wolf in the Feb. 14 New York Times, that Eddie did have a girlfriend in an early cut, and, more important, that the guys' cheerful state of psychological arrest is the whole point of the movie.

In the film's home country (where it's been a giant hit), these four unassuming blokes have been taken up as the avatars of "laddism": according to Wolf, "rowdy, boys-will-be-boys behavior" rooted in the male proletariat yet now "fashionable and hip." It sounds like a dubious movement. Its products include the British and American versions of the sitcom Men Behaving Badly; I presume that it's helped fuel the retro-sexist trend to turn the cover of every Anglo or American men's mag into a Baywatch poster. Still, from the evidence of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, "laddism" has its charms as a revolt against hypocrisy and a cry for spontaneity. Women as well as men may find these anti-heroes refreshing, because they don't pretend to have any raised consciousness. They're blissfully unselfconscious -- often, simply, unconscious.

The movie works because Ritchie puts his razzle-dazzle technique at the service of his quartet's unpredictable impulses. He uses a jester's tricks to spin a labyrinthine yarn. Part of the yarn's joke is just how much of it there is -- and how many shady characters are entwined in it.

Any skilled auteur can involve an audience in media res; Ritchie gets us involved in multi-media res. At a card table, Eddie has the killer knack for reading his opponents' hands in their faces. He persuades Bacon, Tom and Soap to help him raise the 100,000 pounds he needs to play at the table of porn operator and all-around racketeer Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), whose nickname comes not from his face but from his favorite weapon. Naive Eddie, not realizing that H.H. has the game wired, winds up 500,000 pounds in debt. He and his pals have a week to pay up before Harry's enforcers -- Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), who drowns debtors, and Big Chris (Vinnie Jones), who muscles them -- begin slicing off their digits.

The solution is more complicated than the setup: It involves a rabid thief named Dog (Frank Harper) and his sidekick, Plank (Steve Sweeney); a profitable ganja garden; two antique rifles Hatchet Harry craves for his collection; a couple of slapstick thieves-for-hire from up North, who can't tell an antique from an aardvark; and an enigma in an Afro named Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), who seems spacey until you hear him tell an associate, "If you hold back anything, I'll kill ya. If you bend the truth, or I think you're bending the truth, I'll kill ya. If you forget anything, I'll kill ya. In fact, you're going to have to work very hard to stay alive."

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