Four London working class stiffs pool their money to put one in a high stakes card game, but things go wrong and they end up owing half a million pounds and having one week to come up with the cash.
As Jean-Luc Godard said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. A maxim which was not lost on first-time director Guy Ritchie, who chucks in that magical girl'n'gun combination to spice up the already-dizzying plot elements of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. It's just one brilliant set-piece in a film that's positively swimming with them, but it's here that you truly realise j ust how downright exhilarating a movie Lock, Stock... really is.
Here's the scene. Cockney psycho Dog has led his thugs, including the weasely and odious Plank, into the hideout of the chinless wonder ganja farmers led by Winston (Steven Mackintosh). After brushing off some truly pathetic attempts at resistance from the toffs, the hardnuts are in the process of getting medieval on their collective arse. Cue close-up on a pair of suddenly-alert female eyes. Posh pothead totty Gloria (Suzy Ratner) is about to blast her way into crime cinema iconography. Previously glimpsed solely as an unconscious heap (save for scaring Plank with her only line; " Boo!"), Gloria leaps to her feet, grabs a World War II Bren gun and proceeds to blow one of the bad boys into the next postal district. All in the most glorious slo-mo this side of John Woo. It's facking beautiful.
And that, almost in a nutshell, is what makes Lock, Stock... such a great British crime movie. Because no Hollywood director currently in gainful employment would even dream of composing such an amazing action sequence and then not let any of his four young, male leads anywhere near it. But of course, that's precisely the kind of true-Brit quirkiness that appealed to megastar Tom Cruise, a man of wealth and taste, as well as a fervent anglophile, whose loud championing of the film was instrumental in securing a North American distribution deal. That said, Lock, Stock... is not just any film. It transformed Guy Ritchie — a music promo director — into a genuine movie hotshot and the significant other of the world's most famous woman. To paraphrase one of the movie's most commonly heard queries, what the fack is going on here?
On the evidence of Lock, Stock... Ritchie is certainly a bit of an auteur. As writer/director he distinguishes himself with an impressive script, driving a movie enlivened by sparkling performances and giddily inventive visual flourishes. But he also credits himself for the casting — apparently the process took an entire year — and it's here that he excels, marshalling a sprawling roster of unknowns, leather-faced character thesps, non-actors (like notorious hardman Lenny McLean) and handy dilettantes such as Sting. Not least of the achievements is the rescue of the four excellent leads — Moran, Fletcher, Flemyng and Statham — from a life of bit parts and Pot Noodle adverts. The still-youthful Fletcher shines in his first decent screen role since being poster boy for Jarman's Caravaggio back in 1986, while former street hustler Statham grabs his chance at the big time with both hands.
The most astonishing performance, however, comes from ex-footie star Vinnie Jones, who quite simply consumes the screen with pent-up menace, leaving the camera in no doubt as Ritchie turns the stiffness of untried players into a virtue by having them deliver their lines in a unique lingo to who's boss, and delivering the most terrifying portrayal of cockney screen villainy since Oliver Reed's Bill Sykes.
Elsewhere, ace cameos and memorable minor parts are simply too numerous to note here. Of course, Gloria and the Babs Windsor-esque card dealer Tanya are the only two female characters in this film — unless you count a glimpse of a lap-dancer's thong — but, as Tarantino said of Reservoir Dogs (a clear ancestor of Lock, Stock...), this is no more a film that requires female parts than Das Boot. Sorry, ladies. Meg Ryan ain't in this one.
With such a picaresque assemblage of talent, the script had better be on the money. It is. Ritchie turns the stiffness of so many untried players into a virtue by having them deliver their lines in a unique Lock, Stock... lingo. A kind of freewheeling London street poetry, replete with more cockney rhyming slang than you can shake a, er, something that rhymes with stick at Lock, Stock-speak is artificial, stagey and entirely successful, creating in one fell swoop a Britfilm archetype that's up there with Branagh's adaptations of the Bard or Merchant Ivory's takes on E.M. Forster.
As with so many great crime movies, the plot is simply an update of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale, whereby a bunch of crims do a job and then end up killing each other for the money. But it's never been done quite like this before. Apparently mindful of the desensitising effect of screen violence on cinema audiences, Ritchie leaves most of the claret-serving out of shot, and gives us a better film as a result. Mind you, he more than compensates with a gleeful torrent of F- and C-words. The Lavender Hill Mob, my son, was never like this...
A cracking debut which has never really been bettered by its troubled director.