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In Snatch, a great number of things go wrong, but it doesn’t especially matter what they are. What counts in a Guy Ritchie film is the subversion of expectations. Everything in the writer-director’s second feature, a thematic if not actual remake of his Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, is a sting, including the script itself. Plans change, plots unravel, hard men crumble, andonly after the most agonizing complicationslosers win.
A plot synopsis will probably be of little help, but it does at least provide a sense of the movie’s scope. Small-time illegal-boxing promoter Turkish (Jason Statham), the nominal narrator, and his naive partner, Tommy (Stephen Graham), find themselves in an unwanted partnership with Brick Top (Alan Ford), a psychopathically murderous gangster of the sort Americans take for granted but that still stands out in a film from the land another character describes as, “you know, Mary-fuckin’-Poppins.”
When Turkish sends Tommy to buy a new “caravan” (that’s trailer to you) from some “pikeys” (Anglo-Irish gypsies, aka tinkers), Tommy takes the duo’s current boxing star with him for protection. A disagreement ensues, so pikey leader One-Punch Mickey O’Neill (Brad Pitt) battles the boxer to settle the matter, promptly knocking him out. This leaves Turkish and Tommy without a fighter for the upcoming match co-promoted by the unforgiving Brick Top, so they have no choice but to enlist the unpredictable (and inexplicable) Mickey.
Meanwhilesimultaneously is more like ita gang of men disguised as Hasidic Jews break into an Antwerp diamond emporium, making off with a golf-ball-sized gem. The man who ends up with the stone is Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), an ethnically indeterminate mobster who flees to London, where word of the hot rock makes him the target of indestructible Russian racketeer Boris the Blade (Rade Serbedzija), ruthless American-Jewish gem dealer Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina), enforcer-for-hire Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones), and a trio of clueless Afro-Brits who include Tyrone (Ade), a getaway driver so fat he can barely squeeze into his car. These characters’ frantic quest for the diamond soon overlaps the schemes of Turkish, Mickey, and Brick Top.
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With Americans, Russians, Jews, and Irishmen joining the party, Ritchie’s second film has a more international flavor than his debut. There are even a few scenes that occur outside the director’s mythic universe, London’s East End. Still, Snatch is hardly a break with Lock. Although Statham, Jones, and Jason Flemyng (in a hello-goodbye cameo) are the only principals who return from the first film, the mood and mode are very similar. Both movies are celebrations of working-class underdogs who deserve to winnot because they’re smarter or more noble than their rivals, but as compensation for centuries of being on the wrong side of Britain’s class war. (Of course, a similar case could be made for Ritchie’s black characters, who always seem to come up short.)
Snatch and Lock glamorize a demimonde that has largely vanishedtoday’s East End has a large Indian population, as well as many trendy galleries and dance clubsand perhaps never really existed. They’re sort of affirmative-action gangster farces, almost acts of symbolic noblesse oblige. Despite some interviews in which he’s feigned a Cockney background, Ritchie actually grew up in the 17th-century mansion of his stepfather, a baronet; he’s a prime example of the sort of upscale spectator who made both his films British hits. After all, if the director’s movies appealed only to working-class underdogs, they’d draw no larger an audience than a Quentin Tarantino flick that attracted only thieves, hit men, and washed-up boxers.
At some point in any discussion of Ritchie’s work, Tarantino’s name must surface. The British director is deeply indebted to his American counterpart’s black humor, overplotted scenarios, ironic pop-song scores, self-conscious directorial style, and playfully manipulative approach to time. In Snatch, Ritchie sometimes stages a scene that’s so breathless as to be bewildering, only to back it up and show it again from several different angles to reveal what happened; this is a faster-paced adaptation of a technique Tarantino used in both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Ritchie also pays homage to his mentor with an early scene in which the fake Hasids discuss the story of Adam and Eve as they prepare to steal the diamond; the theological dialogue recalls the philosophical discourse in Reservoir Dogswhich just happened to discuss Madonna, the new Mrs. Ritchie, whose “Lucky Star” is on the soundtrack.
Whereas Tarantino’s style has slowed down, Ritchie’s has speeded up. There are moments in Snatch that seem to owe less to Pulp Fiction than to Road Runner cartoons. The director hops beyond jump cuts to fast motion, hyperzooms, split screens, and stop-action, all of which leave verisimilitude several steps behind. Snatch is more slapstick than thriller, with visual gags that recall the comedies of the silent era. It’s no coincidence that the movie’s biggest star, Pitt, has what is essentially a nonspeaking part: He employs a mock-Irish accent whose whole point is its indecipherability (although it does become intelligible on those occasions when Pitt has to say something to advance the plot).
The odd thing about Ritchie’s comedies is that, for all their bad-part-of-town atmosphere, their pleasures are mostly formal. The director goes easy on the violence and provides relatively few verbal gags. Instead, he relies on the twist: the unstoppable thug who’s killed by accident, the guy who turns up at the door just a second after he’s been declared untraceable, the heartless assassin who would never hurt a dog. The implications of such jokes are not always so funny; Ritchie would rather slay a woman than a rabbit, and it’s not as if he provides a lot of women characters to choose from. (In fact, there are only three actresses among the film’s 60 players, two of them twins whose job is to complete each others’ sentences like characters from a drawing-room farce.) But then, women would be a distraction in a film whose references to “mincey faggot balls” and being “proper fucked” reveal a surfeit of male-heterosexual panic.
Ultimately, Snatch’s unpredictability becomes predictable; a film that lives for surprise inevitably loses its ability to deliver it. The movie has energy and invention to burn, but it’s as uninvolving as it is dazzling. For Brits, working-class or otherwise, Ritchie’s movies may serve as a form of validation. For those of us who live some distance from the East End, however, the director’s work looks more film-savvy than street-smart. CP