Let’s call it WTF Syndrome. Mainly because You’ve Never Seen [Insert Film Title] Syndrome is a bit long-winded, and the friend/colleague/family member uttering these words in a tone of diamond-hard incredulity will usually follow up with an equally disbelieving “what the fuck” anyway.
We all have WTF Syndrome movies is our lives. Movies that passed you by on their first release – sometimes for reasons that seemed valid at the time, sometimes for reasons you now can’t recall for the life of you, sometimes because they just plain disappeared under the radar – and which, for equally ephemeral reasons, it took you years to catch up with.
I seem to remember skipping ‘Snatch’ when it first came out because the general consensus was that Guy Ritchie had followed up his iconic debut ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ with basically more of the same, on a bigger budget, only not as good. This at a period in time when the multiplexes were awash with too-cool-for-school Tarantino copyists. (Which, to be honest, I’d pegged ‘Lock, Stock’ as, albeit better made and more genuinely witty than the norm.)
A few months ago, cruising Tesco for
And on the shelf it sat for a while.
I finally slid it into the DVD player a few nights ago … and enjoyed an hour and thirty-nine minutes of top-flight, laugh-out-loud funny, Cockney-accented nonsense.
And I don’t mean “nonsense” in a pejorative term. The closest I can come to describing the plotting and overall aesthetic of ‘Lock, Stock’ and ‘Snatch’ is like a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Except with guns. And swearing. Your average Wodehouse novel consists of a foppish toff, a meddling aunt, a potential fiancée, a big social event and the always lurking potential for cringing embarrassment at same. The machinations of a handful of characters and a couple of overlapping incidents are shuffled with the blink-and-miss-it legerdemain of a game of find the lady. Sit down and try to unpick the narrative after you’ve set the novel aside and you’ll be engaging in an exercise in pointlessness. Best just to go along for the ride and laugh at some good clean fun.
Same deal with ‘Snatch’, only Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) – the luckless protagonists at the centre of Ritchie’s filmic whirlwind – are about a million miles (and several postcodes) removed from Jeeves and Wooster. And Jeeves would never be seen dead at a bare-knuckle boxing match, even if it meant getting Bertie out of the soup. Nor could you imagine Aunt Agatha heisting a diamond the size of a fist under the auspices of American crime boss Avi (Dennis Farina).
But I digress. ‘Snatch’ basically boils down to these two plot strands: (i) two boxing promoters get caught up in a rigged match organized by the downright sociopathic Brick Top (Alan Ford); (ii) Franky Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro) nicks a fuck off big diamond and various individuals want it. Both deals go south. Very quickly.
This is how the boxing side of things goes south: Turkish sends Tommy and the heavyweight boxer they represent, Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to buy a caravan from Mickey (Brad Pitt), a pikey* whose extended family talk a barely comprehensible lingo and spend their time drinking and brawling. A financial dispute sees George and Mickey get into a fight. Mickey soon demonstrates why he goes by the nicknamed “One Punch”. With George subsequently incapacitated, Brick Top gets a bit narked at Turkish, reminding him that Turkish is supposed to be providing him with a nice ringer who’ll take a dive on cue in the fourth round. Turkish’s one chance at avoided vivisection at the hands of Brick Top’s goons (after which he’ll be fed to Brick Top’s pigs) is to persuade Mickey to take George’s place. Except that One Punch Mickey knows as much about taking a dive as Bertie Wooster does about the criminal underworld. Fight night comes around, Mickey does his thing, and the shit hits the fan. Dahnit?
This is how the diamond heist goes south: Franky Four Fingers absconds from Antwerp with the hot rock, under instruction from Avi to lie low, acquire a piece from Russian expatriot Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), stay away from the casinos, and wait for Avi to set him up with his London contact Doug “The Head” Denovitz (Mike Reid). You know that big cliché in American cinema of a few years ago with white characters acting like they were black? Doug’s an East End dodgy geezer who acts like he’s Jewish. Franky hooks up with Boris, who asks him to place a bet on his behalf on an illegal boxing match at a bookies run by Brick Top. Boris owes a debt which precludes him placing the bet himself. Boris then recruits pawnbroker Sol (Lennie James), wannabe Yardie Vinnie (Robert Gee) and corpulent getaway driver Tyrone (Ade) to rob said bookies and remove the diamond from Franky’s possession at the same time. The robbery goes tits up; Sol, Vinnie and Tyrone find themselves on the receiving end of Brick Top’s less-than-tender mercies; Franky gets caught in the middle; and Avi, enraged that the diamond has dropped off the radar, immediately flies out to London and engages the services of professional hard nut Bullet Tooth Tony (played by professional hard nut Vinnie Jones) to track him down.
This is the simple part of the narrative.
From the opening scene, where the progress through a heavily guarded building by an equally heavily disguised Franky and his crew is charted on a succession of CCTV screens, it’s clear that Ritchie is in full-on style-over-substance mode. And why complain when the style is this stylish? Not to mention self-deprecating. Ritchie immediately segues from his ‘Peeping Tom’-style opening to a robbery scene of such ludicrous over-stylization, all jump cuts and freeze frames and OTT camera-work, that your average MTV video looks like an Andrei Tarkovsky film by comparison. The guy’s taking the piss – and he continues taking it, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, for the rest of the film.
In a collection of stereotypes that would be considered racist if they represented non-criminal social groupings, Ritchie gives us the dour but temperamental Russian arms dealer (“Boris the Blade, a.k.a. Boris the Bullet-Dodger.” “Why do they call him that?” “Because he dodges bullets”), the Oirish tinkers (“Da ye like dags?” “What?” “Dags.” “Oh, dogs. Yeah, I like dags”), the tea-drinking Lahdan gangster who snarls and threatens like he’s auditioning for an OAP remake of ‘Get Carter’, and the smart-talking wide-boy who comes across like he’s just stepped out of some bizarre unscreened episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ that got mixed up with a reel of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in the editing room.
He also draws brilliantly funny – and, in the case of Alan Ford, terrifying – performances out of an ostensibly mismatched cast. Seriously: in what other movie would you find Brad Pitt doing a pseudo-Irish accent with Jason Flemyng playing his brother and Sorcha Cusack as their dear old ma, or America’s go-to character actor for mob roles sharing a split-screen transatlantic phone call with ‘Eastenders’ regular Mike Reid?
The dialogue is priceless: Turkish’s continual “before ze Chermans arrive” line rips the piss out of many a bad UK sitcom, the bickering between Sol and Tyrone is hilarious; and every time Mickey opens his mouth and a blarney-tinged screed of gibberish rolls out, the result is pant-wettingly funny. The boxing scenes are like ‘Raging Bull’ kidnapped, re-edited and satirized by the Monty Python boys. The shoot outs are like John Woo on laughing gas. The set-to between Bullet Tooth Tony and Boris the Blade (a.k.a. Boris the Bullet-Dodger), when it becomes apparent how Boris earned the second of his nicknames, is easily the funniest thing Ritchie has put on film.
Like I said before, it’s total nonsense. But damn, it’s funny as fuck. As stylish as fuck. And quotable as fuck. And – I’ll go out on a limb here – probably more accomplished and more all-round entertaining than its kudos-grabbing predecessor.
Sadly, Ritchie’s reputation went as far south as Turkish’s boxing promotion and Franky’s diamond heist after ‘Swept Away’. ‘Revolver’ bemused critics, ‘RocknRolla’ went some way to restoring his standing and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which I must admit I haven’t seen and have very little interest in seeing) has given him his biggest box office returns to date. There’s a sequel in the works. Give me ‘Lock, Stock 2’ or ‘Snatch: The Next Chapter’ and reunited him with The Stat, Vinnie Jones and Jason Flemyng and things might start cooking again. Guv’nor.
*ie. a gypsy.