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Guy Ritchie had to make a phone call, so when the writer-director of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels arrives at the table, his traveling companions have already begun to chat.

“They boring you to death? They usually do,” says Ritchie of red-haired Jason Flemyng and close-cropped Jason Statham, who play two of the four heroes of his film. “Won’t be long.”

“We end up being a bit of a whipping boy for you, don’t we?” gripes Statham in mock indignation. “You being the wiseacre that you are?”

“W!” exclaims Flemyng.

“Oh, I see,” says Ritchie, who has what appears to be a dueling scar on his cheek and wears a black jacket that looks ordinary until it reveals its fuchsia lining. “W, W. Explain the rules? Anyone who can come up with a flash word that begins with W, ’cause we’re in a city that begins with W, wins $20. But ‘whipping boy’ doesn’t qualify, I’m afraid. You’ll have to work harder than that, sweetheart.”

“You might want to tell a bit of a witticism,” continues Statham gamely.

“The flashest word of the day can win you the $20 for the day,” Flemyng explains. “But if it begins with W and you’re in Washington, or S and you’re in Seattle, then you get double bubble.”

Such are the games that keep life interesting for the trio of friends as they travel the U.S. to publicize a movie that’s already conquered Britain. But who determines what’s the flashest word?

“There’ll be a reaction that you can’t hide,” says Ritchie. “If the eyebrows raise with awe, that usually means that they’re doing quite nicely. If it’s an impressive word, our hats will be taken off.”

Britain’s collective hat was taken off by Lock, Stock, an enormously complicated semicomic tale of gangsters in London’s East End. “My theory is that it’s a nonpatronizing film, made for the working man, which crossed over by chance to the middle-aged intelligentsia,” says Ritchie. “I thought it was just going to be for soccer supporters initially, which isn’t a very high

cinema-going demographic. Polygram, who are releasing the video in the U.K., expect it will be the biggest-selling video they’ve ever had. The people it should, in theory, appeal to are video watchers rather than cinemagoers.

“There is a class of people in Britain who don’t really go to the cinema,” he continues. “Because they’ve got kids, and they’re busy. They’re hard-working men. And women. They just don’t get the opportunity. They watch videos.”

“My brother is a huge film buff,” adds Flemyng, “but because he can’t afford to have someone look after his kids when he goes to the cinema, he watches most of his films on video. Even though he loves to go to the cinema. And he also looks like me and gets a lot of grief every time he goes out now. He’s quite shy, so he hates it. Drives him nuts.”

Ritchie begins to simulate snoring.

“I told you he’s a wiseacre,”

says Statham.

“He is a wiseacre,” agrees Flemyng. “I mean, I get very whimsical—” He breaks off as Statham roars.

One of the reasons for the film’s success, Ritchie and Flemyng concur, is a cameo by charismatic footballer Vinnie Jones. “The first thing I heard about Vinnie Jones was that he was sent off after three seconds of a football game,” recalls Ritchie. “That’s the world record. To be sent off after three seconds is…class,” he chuckles. “You really have to work very hard to do that.”

Jones, he notes, had already made a video called Vinnie’s Video Nasties, which “went straight to No. 1. It showed how to tackle a man without the referee seeing you. He got fined thousands and thousands of pounds. He would then come out of court and crack five jokes that would have all the reporters rolling around in the aisles. Everyone at home sort of fell in love with him, ’cause he just didn’t take the whole thing seriously.”

Despite his enthusiasm for Jones’ illicit tackles, Ritchie’s film is not as violent as the movies to which it has frequently been compared, notably those of Quentin Tarantino. “I’ve just become desensitized by violence,” the director notes. “I don’t find any entertainment factor in it. It’s not for any moral or immoral or amoral reasons. I turn off when people get killed. I get turned off by blood, much as I get turned off by car chases and explosions. I cringe whenever I see someone getting his head bashed in, and I don’t like to cringe. I know it hurts.”

The other of the film’s high-profile cameos is Sting, who plays the father of one of the protagonists—and whose wife, Trudi Styler, “salvaged this project a number of days before the ship went down for the last time,” says Ritchie. “While Sting was doing the ironing in the back, his wife was watching the short film I made, and he said, ‘This lad looks like he might be able to do something. I’d love to be a part of it.’”

Neither Sting nor the Police, however, made it onto the soundtrack, which largely features songs recorded before “Roxanne” was released. Ritchie says he selected most of the music for the film from songs he happened to hear on the radio while he was editing. That includes, somewhat incongruously, the Castaways’ “Liar Liar,” a 1965 one-shot hit by a band from Minnesota that the director—equally incongruously—describes as “classic Northern soul.”

“Which one’s the Castaways?” wonders Flemyng.

Ritchie slips into a falsetto: “‘Liar, liar/Pants on fire.’ I nicked that from another movie, Good Morning, Vietnam. It wasn’t that I liked Good Morning, Vietnam. It’s just that my mate had a CD of the soundtrack. I think it’s the only one that came from another film.” (Actually, the movie also uses “Zorba’s Dance” from Zorba the Greek.)

The director says his favorite soundtrack tune is the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” “It’s the simplest song in the world. It’s got one riff all the way through the song, and all he sings is, ‘I want to be your dog.’ In fact, there’s a consistency between all the songs. They’re all incredibly simple. They’re all dum-dum-dum. To me, that’s the best kind of music. Because you have to be confident to be simple.” He laughs. “Or stupid. One or another.”

Lock, Stock has been compared to Trainspotting, which galvanized a similar British audience in 1996, and The Krays, the 1990 biopic that’s also set in the East End. Ritchie and his cohorts, however, dismiss both films, preferring 1980 Brit-gangster drama The Long Good Friday. “I wasn’t a great fan of Trainspotting,” Ritchie says. “I was a fan of the fact that it had an identity, and I think that’s the most important thing for a director to have. But I have no interest in heroin addicts. I just don’t care. I just don’t care for the less salubrious things in life.”

“Salubrious,” notes Flemyng. “That’s good.”

“I know,” agrees Ritchie. “But it doesn’t start with a W.

“I say that,” he continues, “yet this film is all about dubious characters. But somehow they’re all wanting to go up the ladder. They’re not masochists. What do masochists do?”

“Someone who really wants to hurt himself,” prompts Flemyng.

“No, I know that. Flagellation or whatever. Isn’t there another word? I’m not interested in characters who want to bring themselves down. I’m interested in people who want to elevate themselves in some way.”

“The glamour of self-destruction holds nothing for me,” Flemyng offers gravely.

“It holds nothing for me,” Ritchie seconds, to general merriment. “Bugger you!

“I’ve never gotten that whole indie heroin thing,” he continues. “It’s all about indulgence and making your life shit. People seem to somehow derive some kind of glamour out of that. I’m just trying to reiterate what Jason said and make it look like I said it,” he laughs. “I think all drugs are for cunts.”

As for The Krays, laments Flemyng, “That was such a waste of a film. It’s a brilliant story that will never be made again because no one will touch it.”

“No,” Ritchie concurs.

“You were waiting for me to muck up then,” says Flemyng triumphantly, “and I was right.”

Ritchie begins to giggle. “Why are you laughing?” Flemyng demands.

“Because I love ya,” says Ritchie.

“He’s very capricious,” says

Flemyng, and all three crack up again.

Lock, Stock ends on a tentatively upbeat note, which seems to reflect booming London’s currently cheerful mood. Ritchie, however, says he’s not convinced that “Cool Britannia” means much to the average Brit. “I never can pick up on that feeling in the U.K.,” he muses. “Whenever I get to New York they say that London’s supposed to be hip and cool. I’ve never noticed it. I like England because I think it’s a funny place, and there are funny people knocking around in it.”

“I think I have a community identity rather than national one,” says Flemyng. “If my life is going well and my mates’ lives are going well, then there’s a euphoric feeling in the country.”

“Absolutely,” says Ritchie. “Quite eloquent today, isn’t he?”

Flemyng suggests that Lock, Stock’s optimistic conclusion “is more cathartic for the characters in the story. When

you leave, you know the four boys are

all right.”

“Shame we’re not in Chicago,” interrupts Ritchie. “You would have won $20.”

“I would!” Flemyng laughs. “I didn’t even think of that.”—Mark Jenkins