In 1998 British writer/director Guy Ritchie strafed the macho flank of the indie film corps with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," a slapstick, heist-gone-wrong flick in which three groups of guys overlapped criminal schemes. As the action progressed, ever more gory bodies carpeted the floor. Ritchie's camera didn't miss an MTV move: Scenes came at you from funny angles, or were sped up, or slowed down, or momentarily frozen. The film was the bee's knees in England and a minor hit here. If you like your Tarantino tarted up with a dash of "Trainspotting," then "Lock, Stock" was for you.
For that matter, so is "Snatch." After all, for his follow-up, Ritchie did something that in a certain sense is breathtaking: Basically, he remade "Lock, Stock." Did he think that his original formula was too perfect to meddle with? Or is this simply his only talent? One thing can be said: By making a nearly identical movie, Ritchie came up with a clever way to avoid the sophomore jinx.
"Snatch" slingshots out of the gate as two young boxing promoters, Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham), organize a rigged match with local crime boss Brick Top (Alan Ford). Meanwhile, diamond thief Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) needs to deliver a jewel the size of a walnut to his boss back in America. In no time flat both plans have been swept aside like a trailer park in a hurricane, and everybody is scrambling to fix what went wrong or not get killed for letting things go wrong. Because Ritchie gets a kick from both detours and head-on collisions, you know that soon enough the diamond is going to find its way to the boxers.
Unquestionably, Ritchie can write a zippy punch line, and he knows how to create a running gag that seems hilariously arbitrary but turns out to have a purpose. What he can't do is flesh out a character, so each person gets defined by one trait. What does Brick Top do to his enemies? He kills them and feeds them to his pigs, and if you missed that on the first go 'round, you'll hear it about five or six more times. Still, Ritchie seems to know that he's not a nuanced observer of personality and motivation, so he does the smart thing: He compensates by writing a whole lotta characters. That way, we don't tire of them.
But does Ritchie's set of strengths add up to only one type of plot? Put "Lock, Stock" and "Snatch" next to each other, and the similarities are embarrassing. There's an off-and-on narrator; a valuable commodity that characters don't realize is in their possession (here the gem, in the previous version two antique guns); impassive hit men; henchmen who get toppled like bowling pins; and essentially no women in sight.
Then there's the hard-on, empty-minded bloodshed. Sure, in a lot of cases it's way over the top, Wile E. Coyote style, like the flashback to how Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones) got his name, or the attempts to kill the virtually indestructible Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbed-gia). Bang, bang. Spurt, spurt. He's still alive! Ha, ha. Other times we're meant to chuckle over our own squeamishness. Shudder as a machete gets raised over a dead man's arm, still handcuffed to a diamond-filled briefcase. Remember the needle-in-the-heart scene from "Pulp Fiction?" Ritchie must've loved our collective squeal over that one.
The success of his first movie gave Ritchie access to some star power. In "Snatch," Brad Pitt has high fun in his turn as a gypsy who's a bare-knuckle boxing champ. He has two defining characteristics -- you can barely understand him, and he loves his ma -- one of which becomes an important plot element. In contrast, Benicio Del Toro, who is a constant, understated marvel in "Traffic," should just slink away from this and hope that everyone forgets it happened. At least if anyone asks him, "Weren't you in that convoluted Guy Ritchie comedy with the bungled robbery and the quirky criminals?" he can answer, "You mean "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?" Nah, I wasn't in that.