Should I Watch..? 'Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels'
What's the jellied eel?
Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is a comedic crime caper film released in 1998 and was written and directed by Guy Ritchie, in his feature-length debut. The film follows the story of one man and his three friends who end up owing a crime boss a lot of money after a rigged card game and are given one week to pay it back. The film brought Ritchie to international attention as well as stars Jason Flemyng, Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham. Since its release, it has become hugely popular and influential as well as spawning a number of parodies. Despite its small budget, the film was a financial success and was named as the 34th best British film of all time by Total Film magazine in 2004.
So what's the Jackanory?
A group of friends - market trader Bacon, chef Soap, dodgy dealer Tom and card shark Eddy - invest the required £100'000 to buy into a high-stakes game of cards hosted weekly by local gangster Harry "The Hatchet" Lonsdale. However, the game is rigged and Eddy ends up ejected from the game and owing Harry half a million. Knowing that the boys will be unable to pay up, Harry sends his debt collector Big Chris (and his son, Little Chris) to acquire a bar owed by Eddy's dad, JD. Meanwhile, Harry orders his enforcer Barry The Baptist to get two thieves to steal a pair of antique shotguns due to come up for auction. The thieves in question happen to be immensely incompetent and unwittingly sell the guns to Nick The Greek, a large acquaintance of Tom who also deals in dodgy goods.
Eddy has a plan to get the money for Harry - his no-good neighbours, led by the genuinely nasty Dog, are planning to rob some upper-class weed growers so Eddy reckons that they can then rob the neighbours when they get back with the loot. With the rest on board for the scheme, Tom buys the guns from Nick and the plan swings into action. However, what was once the safest job in the world quickly turns into a bad day in Bosnia...
Harry "The Hatchet" Lonsdale
Barry The Baptist
Alan / Narrator
Release Date (UK)
28th August, 1998
So what's Robin Hood?
Britain loves a good villain, from the Kray twins (who most recently popped up again in 2015's Legend) to Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. We love an underdog, someone who beats the system when the odds are stacked against them, and we're not too bothered how they do it either. And in a way, this film was a bit of an underdog as well. An unknown, unproven director with a largely unknown cast normally spells trouble but Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is a rare exception. Ritchie's direction is confident and unashamedly stylish while the cast are sublime, displaying a great sense of humour (even the baddies and bit-part players get some laughs) with what is actually quite an adult and dark story.
For once, it's nice to see a more realistic London on screen - yes, the capital can look as glamorous as it does in Notting Hill but generally speaking, the film is seemingly set in a dirty labyrinth of squalid housing and struggling businesses and Ritchie isn't afraid to show us the city in its true colours. But not too much - most of the film's violence is off-screen or implied and it is also shown to have serious consequences as well. The film's back-to-basics approach keeps the movie looking authentic while the dialogue is endlessly quotable and very, very funny.
- The film uses several examples of Cockney rhyming slang including an entire monologue performed by Danny John-Jules. For example, Nick the Greek is often referred to as Nick the Bubble (as in Bubble and Squeak). Also, Tom tells Nick to "keep his Alans on" as they haggle over a stereo (Alan Whicker - knickers).
- Sting makes a cameo as Eddy's father JD who owns the bar Harry is interested in. His wife Trudi Styler was an executive producer and helped acquire funding for Ritchie.
- The scene where Nick breaks the glass in the coffee table was not in the original script. It was an accident during filming and Ritchie liked it so much, he kept it in the film.
And what's Alan Ladd?
In truth, there isn't much to fault. The soundtrack, cast, story, comedy and tone are absolutely spot-on for this type of grubby caper. If anything, Ritchie's direction can feel a little too cocky at times as though he realised early on that he was on to a winner. The film has plenty of artistic shots where cards are thrown at the camera and freeze in mid air and characters dive in slow motion when the action begins to kick off. That sort of stylish trickery belongs more in something like Ocean's Eleven which can happily indulge in being overly stylish amid the twinkling neon of the Las Vegas Strip. The only thing that twinkles in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is the corner of Statham's eye during the opening scene where his once-professional market banter is utilised to perfection.
I know a lot of people who prefer Ritchie's follow-up - the similarly-themed Snatch - but I still prefer this earlier effort. It has no big stars to distract you (although Statham and others obviously went on to bigger things) and doesn't get too big-headed which Snatch does, to me at least. It's the same difference between Desperado and its follow-up Once Upon A Time In Mexico - the first picture isn't as bloated or loaded down with needless expense. What Ritchie does here is prove that low budget doesn't necessarily mean low quality.
So it's good for my mince pies?
Absolutely, blood! Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels deserves its place in Britain's hall of cinematic fame by being not just a riotously funny crime caper but also because it brings what was once a staple genre of British cinema back to life again. It might feel a little arrogant at times as Ritchie shows off his bag of director's tricks but the film remains a superb piece of Cockney-flavoured comedy with performances that light up the screen and a soundtrack to die for.
Great For: Cockneys, adults, the British film industry
Not So Great For: anyone under 18, anyone looking for high-brow entertainment
Any other films I should bovver with?
Of course, Ritchie wasn't the first to show the world London's seedy underbelly. The classic thriller 10 Rillington Place saw Richard Attenborough play the notorious serial killer John Christie who murdered a string of people at that address whereas Bob Hoskins shot to international fame playing a gangster trying to go straight in The Long Good Friday. Hoskins would return to the capital in Mona Lisa as a driver for high-class hooker Cathy Tyson but none of these films have the same comic power that Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels possesses.
London would also provide fertile ground for much of Ritchie's directing career. Returning with the equally well received Snatch, he would have less successful outings with Revolver and RocknRolla despite covering very similar territory. In fact, Ritchie would have to reinvent Sherlock Holmes before finally rediscovering his mojo.
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© 2015 Benjamin Cox