City Paper is not for tourists.
In the future, every city will have its own Tarantino movie. London’s has already arrived, in the form of the U.K.’s second-largest-grossing British-made film of last year, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Interestingly, the movie that topped it was Sliding Doors, which depicts an entirely different London. Whereas that film’s heroine (Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s not even British, after all) lives a posh West London life, Lock, Stock is all East End, which means working-class, resolutely unfashionable, and indubitably masculine. Sliding Doors is a chick flick; Lock, Stock is a lad’s saga. One of its most prominent female characters is a stripper who fleetingly thrusts her bum toward the camera.
This is the feature debut of writer-director Guy Ritchie, who hasn’t exactly held anything back; the movie has more plot than Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction combined. Indeed, the intricate choreography of rip-offs, double crosses, and screw-ups is an essential part of the joke. Although it’s set on London’s equivalent of Scorsese’s mean streets, the film is hardly naturalistic. Ritchie establishes that he’s in charge with self-conscious voice-overs, freeze-frames, and fast motion: The story will go wherever he sends it. Psychological motivation is not really an issue, so the viewer is relieved of the burdensome task of keeping track of the sprawling cast of characters.
The four central players are cheeky young pals Eddie (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Statham), and Soap (Dexter Fletcher). The other three decide to trust card-shark Eddie with their mostly ill-gotten gains, bankrolling his high-stakes poker showdown with porn and crime boss Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty). The latter isn’t playing with a straight deck, however, and Eddie soon finds himself with a pressing $800,000 obligation. His choice is either to face ruthless debt collector Big Chris (played by notorious British footballer Vinnie Jones) or to convince his prickly father, JD (Sting), to turn his bar over to Harry. The bar is what Harry really wants, but it’s not all he wants. He also covets a set of antique muskets, the “smoking barrels” of the title.
While Harry enlists two bumbling thieves to get the muskets, Eddie and his friends stumble onto a plot by another gang to rob a third crewsome naive, upscale marijuana cultivators. Desperate for cash, the good bad guys decide to intercede in the bad bad guys’ heist. Things couldn’t be that simple, thoughnot in this movie, where one good twist deserves a half-dozen more. If little goes as planned, however, that doesn’t mean Lock, Stock features as many nasty surprises for its protagonists as a pre-Jackie Brown Tarantino movie. Less bloody than its swaggering attitude promises, the movie is also considerably less bleak. In fact, in its macho way, Lock, Stock is as auspicious as Sliding Doors.
Ritchie scores with playfulness, sheer energy, and the requisite hip score (James Brown, Junior Murvin, the Castaways, Dusty Springfield, the Stooges), yet his film is not particularly involving. Eddie, Tom, Bacon, and Soap have barely enough personality to be distinguishable from each otherwhich may explain why the movie makes so much of Vinnie Jones’ cameo: He’s the only guy with an identifiable public image. The film features types rather than characters, and vanished types at that; today the East End is known more for sari shops, curry restaurants, art spaces, and dance clubs than scrappy Cockney heroes and working-class pubs. Lock, Stock is jaunty and hip, but American viewers may have difficulty discerning just what arcane subculture it’s celebrating.
The Hong Kong gangster flick can be seen as a form of action painting, a purely visual assemblage of tracer bullets, zigging cars, and hailstorms of shattered glass. But to the genre’s most celebrated craftsman, John Woo, the style must have a moral dimension. That’s why the much-imitated director prefers his genre-making A Better Tomorrow, with its theme of redemption through sacrifice, to A Better Tomorrow II, the shallow but visually more delirious sequel.
James Foley’s The Corruptor is the first Woo-struck American film to take the master’s message as seriously as his aesthetic. Like many of its HK counterparts, the movie is more spectacular than it is plausible. Still, Robert Pucci’s script offers something to think about between the frequent gun battles and car crashes. Of course, it helps that star Chow Yun-Fat has worked on his English a bit since The Replacement Killers, his all-flash-and-no-heart American debut. He now sounds as if he might have been in the U.S. awhile, although not enough to redeem such stilted lines as “You don’t change Chinatown, boy. It changes you.”
As in most of his Woo roles, Chow plays an ethically ambiguous character: His Nick Chen is an NYPD detective who tries to protect Chinatown’s innocent but in the process gets a little too chummy with the local crime bosses. While enforcing the law, the much-
decorated cop also dallies with hookers and passes information to Henry Lee (Ric Young), an epicene, smirkingly soft-spoken mobster who turns out to be even more nefarious than he first appears.
Lee is the corruptor, of course, but so is Chen, who introduces his Sinophile new partner, Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), to pleasures that are not strictly legal as he briefs him on the neighborhood. There’s even a third corruptor, Danny’s ex-cop dad (Brian Cox), who presses his son to bend the rules to pay off the old man’s gambling debt. Beneath the clear-cut antagonism of the movie’s bloody firefightsmost of which turn on the brazen tactics of the Fukinese Dragons, a punk-haired gang of youthful interlopersis a maze of muddled morals and unreliable alliances.
Foley, whose diverse résumé ranges from Glengarry Glen Ross to Who’s That Girl?, is not the sprightliest of action directors, and Pucci’s screenplay, for all its twists, doesn’t actually contain any surprises. Still, Chow’s imposing yet mischievous presence is a major asset, and Wahlberg partially redeems himself for his role in last year’s stereotype-mongering action-comedy The Big Hit (executive-produced, as was The Corruptor, by Woo himself). Foley, Pucci, and the cast don’t change Chinatown cliches, but they do give them flash, kick, and moral resonance.
The Deep End of the Ocean was delayed for several months so that it wouldn’t have to compete with Stepmom, and from a distance the two do seem similar. Both were produced by glamorous, successful actresses who also starred, and both have as their central character a professional-photographer mom who must learn how to care for a child who has been raised by someone else. The narrative distinction is that in the current film the unknown child is the mother’s own, returned to his family nine years after being kidnapped as a 3-year-old. The aesthetic distinction is that this film was directed by Ulu Grosbard (Straight Time, True Confessions) and written by ex-film critic Stephen Schiff, who most recently scripted Lolita.
The result is a sober weepie, one that inevitably appeals to primal parent-and-child fears, but without reaching for easy sentimentality. Despite its subject, Deep End isn’t too harrowing: When Beth (Michelle Pfeiffer) slides into depression after toddler Ben disappears from a teeming Chicago hotel lobby, she merely spends a lot of time sleeping and nervously rearranging her lips. When pressed, her restaurateur husband, Pat (Treat Williams), blames Beth for losing Ben, but most of the time he’s solid and responsible. Older son Vincent (Jonathan Jackson) feels guilty, too, but his distress is intertwined with general adolescent surliness. The only character who’s distractingly one-dimensional is the improbably named Detective Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg), the caring cop who also happens to be black, female, and gay.
Deep End was adapted from Jacquelyn Mitchard’s 1996 novel of the same name, the first book boosted by Oprah Winfrey’s book club, but it also bears a strong resemblance to Olivier, Olivier, Agnieszka Holland’s much harsher 1991 film. In both scenarios, the missing boy returns, although the arrival of Deep End’s prodigal son (Ryan Merriman) is treated as less of an enigma. Here the issue is whether the boynamed Sam by his adoptive father, who didn’t know he was kidnappedshould be allowed to choose between his biological family and the father who raised him for nine years. The proper outcome so perplexed Pfeiffer that she demanded that Grosbard shoot two different endings, although the director’s choice ultimately prevailed.
As in most Hollywood films about troubled families, real-life problems don’t intrude on the proceedings. When the devastated Beth impulsively decides to abandon her photography career, the decision has no apparent effect on her family’s standard of living. (Indeed, the essential distance of Beth, Pat, and their kids from the afflictions of contemporary America is established by the movie’s Chicago and Wisconsin locations; in Hollywood fare, such heartland suburbia is seldom tainted by evil or even eccentricity.) Still, Pfeiffer proves a less self-aggrandizing producer than the Stepmom duo: She allows herself to look (relatively) haggard in the latter part of the film, and she steps out of the spotlight when the story requires. From the opening sequence, it’s clear that the crucial relationship is between the two brothers, and Pfeiffer’s biggest contribution may have been not to intrude on it.CP