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Cinema: Beyond Pulp Affliction

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

The movie is about some guys who lose 500,000 [pounds] in a card game and have to come up with the money in a week, or they’ll start losing fingers and other precious protuberances. And in a case of life imitating art, the guy making the movie–Guy Ritchie, that is, three days before shooting his first feature, the British crime comedy Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels–found that the financing had fallen through, and he needed to raise dough pronto. Forget all the bad guys in the script; worry about some of the ex-cons cast in the film. “We had real villains in the movie who were ready to break our legs if the money didn’t come,” says producer Matthew Vaughn. “I even spoke to some Mob people about financing it. They hemmed and hawed.” Damn! Just the folks you’d think could make a quick executive decision.

LS&2SB, as we’ll call it, did get made and became a big Brit hit: $22 million so far, which puts it in the blockbuster class in the U.K. The movie may not go stratospheric here, if only because its East London accents are thicker than its hail of artillery. (“Americans will get used to the language,” says Jason Flemyng, one of the film’s flotilla of engaging young actors, “like we had to get used to Boyz N the Hood.”) But LS&2SB has all the early signs of success. Tom Cruise’s early enthusiasm for the film helped it land a U.S. distributor. The picture got ballistic buzz this year at Sundance. A spin-off series is planned for British TV. And Ritchie, 30, is a bicontinental rising star. It’s not just the deal he has with Sony for his next film. It’s that he’s been, well, squiring Madonna. The writer-director is typically a chatty bloke, but he goes all coy when asked about his famous friend. “She’s a very…well, we all know what she is!”

We know what she is, Guy, but what are you? The next Mr. Quentin Tarantino? Probably not: Ritchie’s idea of film pizazz is to dip into his TV commercials bag of fast-mo, slo-mo and stop-mo, until you may cry out, “No mo’.” The movie is frolicsome but pushy, the triumph of flash over style. But for narrative savvy and direction of actors, Ritchie is up there with Q.T.

He takes the basic Gang of Four plot (four streetwise young men fall into a lot of trouble) and expands it exponentially. His story has four gangs of four, and three other tough-guy twosomes, all trying to screw or do in their rivals. Since Tarantino revived the crime genre, it has devolved into a contagion, a virtual pulp affliction, of high body counts and low quality; it needed new blood, and not just from the effects department. That’s where Ritchie comes to the rescue.

The plot is too good to spoil and too complex to spill. Just know that our gang (Flemyng, Jason Statham, Nick Moran and Dexter Fletcher), scrounging to find that half a million quid, overhears the goons next door plotting to steal money and drugs from four ganja growers nearby; our lads hope to cash that booty in with an Afro-Cockney gang. (Clear?) Then it all goes as wrong as a bad day in Bosnia. “Could everyone stop getting shot?” one of the goons pleads–and this is before a shoot-out that makes the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre look like a heart-shaped box of Cadbury chocolates.

Yet the film so tightly holds on to its sense of humor, its love of East End patois, its fascination with lowlifes and the low deaths waiting for them, that the carnage is mostly punctuation. The movie is as buoyant as a floating corpse in a clown costume. Or, as one of the “good” guys says, “A little pain never hurt anybody.”

Ritchie is not a film-school wonderboy. “He has no awareness of movie history, and in a way that’s refreshing,” notes executive producer Steve Tisch. “It sounds funny saying it, but Guy is a guy’s guy.” If he had given in to other impulses, he could have been, as other wise guys say, a made man. “I left school at 15,” Ritchie says, “and got distracted by the ways of the underworld.” He was arrested for (but not charged with) robbery after a police search of his home yielded TVs, VCRs and stereos with no serial numbers. Ultimately Ritchie determined that the outlaw life was “not a sensible vocation for me. I felt the only profit I could take from that world was to make a film about it.”

Before directing TV spots and music videos, he traveled through Africa (“I discovered that if it moves, you can eat it”) and dug trenches at sewer sites in Greece (“That gave me an appreciation for money that’s invaluable now”). Ritchie shot LS&2SB, with its dozens of speaking roles and locations, for just $1.6 million. “When it comes to film budgets, I’m lethal.”

That’s just the sort of killer instinct Hollywood loves: an unerring commercial sense at the price of a street vendor’s Rolex. Time will tell if Ritchie is the real goods. But as LS&2SB proves, he can blast out 107 minutes of hard, dark fun.

–Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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