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NewCityNet Hype Kills

Masculinity And Emasculation In "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"

By Ray Pride

MARCH 15, 1999:  You make a movie, you get your deal, then there's the goddamn hype. If you're this year's great white hype, watch out: movies seldom live up to manic buzz, and there's a wasp's nest of critics ready to sting anything already saluted by a massive audience elsewhere.

Sundance featured the American premiere for the UK's multi-decamillion dollar hit of the year, "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels," riding on its English huzzahs and a reputation for having - yuck! - inspired Tom Cruise to pump his fist in the air during a screening and shout, "This film rocks!"

No report on whether there was a mass exodus to the door once the Cruiseter had spoken. At Park City, writer-director Guy Ritchie's East End of London-set mass of mayhem and comic, contrived underworld patois went down well-enough, its quartet of buffoonish, privileged male nincompoops almost matching the demographic of the press and film industry lads in the auditorium. (Not to mention the raft of "lad" magazines from Great Britain sweeping American newsstands, such as Maxim, Loaded, Neon and FHM.)

Eddie, Tom, Bacon and Soap are a skinny, Sloane Ranger-y "our gang," yup-pups twinkling with laddish softness in the face of threats from a series of "hard men" - both in stature and deed. They're trapped in several conflicting cartoon worlds at once, and their thorough flummoxing as they are double-crossed and serially shocked by their piss-poor luck and their schemes gone wrong, is what gives this manic and conflicted movie its bold comic velocity. I hated it, outright hated it, for about fifteen minutes.

Writer-director Guy Ritchie piles it on: they're naff, spoiled boys who find themselves in the Cockney gangland of "The Long Good Friday," getting in a bind over an 500,000 gambling debt, sliding into a rip-off involving pot dealers and debt collectors and self-proclaimed "porn kings," and finding the kind of old-line, hard-ass muscle against them. But the four don't belong in these worlds, and that's the cumulative power of the joke: these are the wannabe wide boys who would laugh their bony asses off at the nihilism of a "Pulp Fiction" on video for the fortieth time, spewing warm lager into each other's laps, yet they would be hapless, clueless, lost, in the face of any kind of murderous actuality.

The telling of the tale is tricksy to the nines. There's a manic voice-over, almost a dozen characters are introduced in the opening reel, the camera peers into and out of closets and pots and ovens and toilets and there are "Trainspotting"-style romp scenes with in-camera speed changes, "Pulp Fiction"-style overlaps of fictional worlds that hardly pass for any kind of reality.

Ritchie, who claims to be 29, is supposedly severely dyslexic, but a different kind of misreading perhaps led to its unusual, gangbusters flavor. As shooting began, Ritchie's budget was cut to a quarter of what he needed, and as shooting began, he found that the actors thought they were having a grand old time - he wanted to revisit the bleak, murderous crime world of "Long Good Friday" and found his actors more attuned to the farcical potential of all the spicy cod-jargon, the absurd levels of the threats, and the fixations on dildos, machetes, machine-guns, flame throwers, spanking jokes, mutilation and generalized homosexual panic. Over tea and scones, Ritchie cheerfully admits he had a big kitchen sink to toss things into. "I've always said that there's never been any conscious influence. I'm aware I've been extremely influenced, but I just don't know who more than any other." He pause. "I was interested - do you mind if I have that scone on the top? That's the one I'm really interested in - I was really into the Ealing comedy thing. I think my film belongs there instead of under the Tarantino umbrella."

Comedies from the Ealing studio in the 1950s, such as "Kind Hearts and Coronets" or "Whiskey Galore," boasted raftloads of comic British eccentrics, bound together as a community against some absurd threat or threat of change. "I certainly wanted to position the story nowhere particularly in time. The only thing that gives it away that it's contemporary is the mobile phones. I think you don't want to know what period it is, it heightens the state of surrealism.... No, too strong a word." Another pause, another grin. "It loses you a bit and that's where I want to be when I'm entertained by a film. I just want to feel slightly drunk, so I'm not quite sure what's going on, but at least can follow a narrative. My film was meant to entertain. It wasn't meant to be a realistic representation of anything. You subscribe to that kind of entertainment. Or you don't. I had a critic in England who went off about the lack of policemen on the street. It was so transparently obvious that there are a mass of things amiss if this were the real world, just to mention the police being absent from the scene was, y'know, about as intelligent as me calling you Gay Pride when we just said hello."

A bite of the scone. "Rather good, this."

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