In the late 1990’s the British gangster film had ground almost to a halt. There seemed to be little interest from both filmmakers and audiences in East End kingpins or the seedy underbelly of British society. The last notable release had been Peter Medak’s The Krays, staring the Kemp Brothers (Gary and Martin, formally of the eighties pop-group Spandau Ballet) as the famous 1960’s crime bosses, which had been a modest success at the box-office (Nuns on the Run was also released in 1990, arguably another notable British film involving gangsters. No jokes).
It was a shame that this subject was sitting idle as the British gangster movie had undergone a renaissance in the 1970s-80s. Landmark films such as Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986) had found new narrative depth in their subject by exploring the characters that populated these harsh environments, dissecting their ambitions, fears, regrets and lusts.
All of this and the landscape of British cinema was too change though in July 1998 with the release of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Made for just over £1 million by an unknown 30-year-old filmmaker the film became a cultural sensation, making over £25 million at the box office and propelling Ritchie onto the world stage as a major new British filmmaker. The film spawned imitations, straight copies, a TV series spin-off and kick-started a whole new sub-genre in British cinema, which continues to thrive to this day.
Guy Ritchie came from a privileged childhood; his parent’s Amber and John Ritchie divorced when he was young and both re-married prominent individuals in the English upper-classes (Including Conservative politicians, life-peers and Barons). However, Ritchie had had a difficult childhood. Dyslexic, he did not succeed academically at school and was eventually expelled at the age of 15 for, what the director claims was, “heavy drug use”.
Having held an ambition of becoming a film director since he was young, Ritchie skipped film school and became a runner in the film industry and swiftly progressed to directing music videos and adverts by the mid-90s. In 1995 he directed his first short film, The Hard Case, which in turn caught the attention of Trudi Styler and her husband, Sting. Both were impressed by the young director’s work and helped him secure funding for his first feature (Trudi Styler commented that Ritchie’s script was one of the best she had read, yet it was formatted terribly!).
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels follows the exploits of Eddy (Nick Moran) and his mates Tom, Soap and Bacon (Played by Jason Flemying, Dexter Fletcher and Jason Statham, respectively) as they collectively gamble £100,000 on a card game that Eddy is playing in. Eddy is conned out of his money by gangland kingpin Harry the Hatchett and the boys find themselves in debt to him for £500,000. That is the central plot of the film, however there is so much more going on than just that. In a technique which would become synonymous with his films, Ritchie intertwines several different story threads which all eventually link together as the plot progresses.
Watching the film now, what really differentiates it from the movies which have replicated it since is its wit. Ritchie’s characters are one-dimensional stereotypes – the chancer, the hard-case, the clean one – yet his script is full of memorable lines that elaborate on those character’s traits and aid them in becoming more recognisable as people.
Ritchie gathered a varied cast for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. No big marquee names, but a range of British character actors, up-and coming performers and even former football players and models (And also, Sting as Eddy’s Dad!). The director has spoken about how he spent an extensive amount of time taking care in casting this film and it shows in the final product. As Eddy, Nick Moran plays the line between likeable and arrogant very well; we both want him to succeed in avoiding Harry’s hatchet, yet his cocky nature doesn’t completely sell him to an audience.
Amongst Eddie’s gang, Jason Flemying is self-assured and has natural screen charisma, Dexter Fletcher has the wide-eyed innocence which perfectly fits his character’s intentions to stay clean and Jason Statham doesn’t have to do much more than stand around looking and sounding gruff. Wisely Ritchie recognised that Vinny Jones has a limited amount of charisma and instead directed him to speak his lines slowly with a lot of care. This only increases the characters menace whilst lending his comedic lines a wonderful deadpan delivery. Sting unfortunately is Sting, he really isn’t much of an actor.
There are some details of both the production and content that date the film to the period in which it was made. The whole film has a yellow wash to it, which when coupled with the film’s high contrast look it can be off-putting (On a making of documentary available online it is explained this technique was used to give the film a consistent look – understandable considering the tight budget under which the film was made, however it does make everyone look like a Simpson’s character). Also, Ritchie is still honing his skill as a director and group scenes in which he holds on wide shots can feel awkward and perfunctory.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in the United Kingdom on 28th August 1998. It was an immediate hit with audiences, drawing huge box-office receipts. In the states it wasn’t released till the following March. Initially having trouble finding an American distributor, Tom Cruise attended a screening of the film and highly praised it, leading to its purchase and eventual release in the American market. The film kickstarted the continuing boom in British gangster films, from Sexy Beast in 2000, through The Football Factory all the way through to We Still Kill the Old Way in 2014.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels set Guy Ritchie up as a major new filmmaking talent on the world stage and for his next feature he looked to expand his ambitions.
Next up… 2000’s gangster comedy thriller Snatch…