Nailing Style, Missing Substance

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

It would be nice to discuss Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels without mentioning Pulp Fiction, but Guy Ritchie won’t let me.

Writer/director Ritchie’s first feature doesn’t just borrow from the ultimate ’90s movie; it wants to be its British equivalent. Surprisingly, it’s mostly successful, nailing the seemingly offhand style, the description-proof plot, and the casual violence. It even boasts a Jules clone — a drug dealer with a massive Afro and an odd delivery — and an inspired bit of throw-away slapstick carnage that recalls Quentin Tarantino’s brains-a-flyin’ accidental shooting.

This Fiction is told from the point-of-view of four young guys in way over their heads, not unlike the Big Kahuna-burger boys of Tarantino. When Eddy (Nick Moran) goes 500,000 pounds in debt to Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty) in a poker game, he knows he’s in deep shit. After all, Harry (whose door plate reads “Porn King”) once beat a man to death with a 15-inch black-rubber dildo.

So Eddy and his three buddies (who each ponied up 25,000 pounds to get their friend into the poker game) need to pay off their debt in a week or they’ll start losing some fingers. They happen to overhear a local gangster talk about a big drug-and-cash score he’s planning, and they plot to relieve him of his jackpot with some laughably inadequate weaponry. Their double-cross goes amazingly well. What they don’t realize is that they’ve pissed off several groups of well-armed and merciless criminals who will go to great lengths to regain their riches.

To this point, Ritchie’s movie is funny and light, if overstylized. Tightly written, well-acted, and stuffed with jokes high and low, the movie’s only false move in its first half is the director’s hodgepodge arsenal of slow motion, accelerated motion, freeze frames, and disorienting camera tricks.

But Lock, Stock ... reaches a point where the viewer understands that every detail is important and essential to the plot, and that realization drains the movie’s energy. I began to see where it was going, and I knew exactly how it was going to end.

And there is something important missing. Pulp Fiction was ultimately about Jules’ redemption, his choice to “walk the Earth” instead of staying with a life of crime, a decision the movie showed to be quite prescient. Tarantino’s structure and Samuel L. Jackson’s gravity elevated the movie from enjoyable to something special.

Lock, Stock ... has no moral weight, though. It essentially takes the lesson of Fargo — all those people dead for little monetary gain — but is too full of people and plot to ever make the audience care what happens. The characters are fun to watch, but never likable, interesting, or well-developed enough to inspire any emotional investment. The movie ultimately lacks finesse, that intangible quality that strikes just the right balance between plot and character, style and substance, and deliberate construction and fancy.

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