The resulting herky-jerky motion gives off a humorous buzz. The four main lads are deadbeats, not Beatles, but Ritchie treats them as if they were the stars of A Hard Day's Night and Help! -- and his own style owes more to the fearlessly eclectic Richard Lester than it does to Tarantino or Scorsese. The use of reggae, ska and retro-rock helps him establish an elastic rhythm. When Ritchie slows down the action, it's usually not to make a visual point but to let his words sink in. He changes film speeds and angles so rapidly and promiscuously that when Eddie practices a one-handed shuffle, you feel certain that his hand has been sped up and the rest of the picture frozen.

Nothing Ritchie does is particularly original or profound, but he's got a back-alley flair that's both kinetic and literary. As a writer of dialogue, he knows how to build a rococo shtick into a relentless farcical eruption. Here's Tom trying to sell his competitor and sometime ally, Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus), some hot electronics: "That is 900 nicker in any shop you're lucky enough to find one in, and you're complaining about 200. What School of Finance did you study? It's a deal, it's a steal, it's sale of the fucking century. In fact, fuck ya, Nick, I think I'll keep it." When Nick flashes an enormous wad, Tom explodes: "You could choke a dozen donkeys on that, and you're arguing about 100 pound? What do you do when you're not buying stereos, Nick -- financing revolutions?... You got Liberia's deficit in your skyrocket. Tighter than a duck's butt you are. Now come on, let me feel the fiber of your fabric."

But Ritchie also knows how cleansing and uproarious a simple irony can be. Big Chris summarizes the entire chronicle of crackpot carnage when he says, "One more thing. It's been emotional."

You may not get a clear sense of the East End amid the phantasmagoria of old-fashioned sleaze and souped-up weed, of sex toys used as clubs and rifles as bargaining chips. (Apart from Nick's Greekness, the only reference to ethnicity comes when Tom says a deal is "as kosher as Christmas," and Nick must explain, "Jews don't celebrate Christmas.") You may not always know how the various mugs wind up in the exact right or wrong spots. Yet you always take amusement in Ritchie's flesh-and-blood versions of cartoon characters. The green public-school kids who run the ganja garden are voluptuously silly, and Ritchie has the sense to give the zonked-out girl who lives with them a hilarious, unexpected climax.

This writer/director may or may not be a budding movie artist, but he's definitely a top-notch gamesman. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie tosses out inflammatory gags with blithe impunity. He plays pick-up-sticks with dynamite.

Opens March 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

THE LAST DAYS
Directed by James Moll

In Hungary, the Holocaust lasted only for a year. But the word "only" is deceptive in this context. The Nazis, who entered the country in March 1944, had been in the genocide business for a few years by then, and they'd gotten good at it. They were efficient, and they were determined. By the time Hungary was liberated early the following year, well over half-a-million Hungarian Jews had died at their hands, many after deportation to concentration camps. It was a long year.

During the same period, the Nazis were growing increasingly aware that they were losing the war. The resources that were devoted, with frantic obsessiveness, to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry were much needed elsewhere in the German war effort. That's the historical point of director James Moll's documentary The Last Days: that the real war, as far as the Nazis were concerned, was always against the Jews -- that when the Germans knew they were on the verge of defeat, it was against this enemy that they redoubled their efforts, as if in obedience to some horrid sense of obligation, a vision of a Jew-free world as their legacy.

The dramatic point of the film, however -- the human point -- is to defiantly demonstrate the failure of that insane vision. The Last Days focuses on five survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, three women and two men who came to the U.S. after the war and led distinguished careers, raised families, flourished and thrived. As sad and horrifying a chronicle as the film is, it nonetheless leaves behind a sort of angry exhilaration and joy. You want to shout backward through time at the Nazis, "Well, here are five you bastards didn't destroy, and they're still with us."

The five survivors are Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch and Irene Zisblatt. Lantos, now the representative from California's 12th Congressional District, was a Budapest native sent to a forced-labor camp as a teenager; he worked repairing a railroad trestle after it was bombed by British and American planes. He escaped, entered the underground back in Budapest and avoided the concentration camps by taking refuge in one of the safehouses maintained by Raoul Wallenberg. The other four were less fortunate. Cahana, now a respected artist, spent time in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Firestone, now an outreach teacher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was also deported to Auschwitz, where her sister died after being subjected to scientific experimentation. Zisblatt survived appalling experiments in the same camp. Basch, a small-town boy, was arrested while sneaking through the Budapest sewers to deliver Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews from Wallenberg, and ended up in Buchenwald.

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