[Written for Film.com]
Guy Ritchie’s sophomore feature makes no apologies for clinging to familiar if engagingly iconoclastic material, specifically to Ritchie’s own popular crime comedy from 1999, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
Refreshingly funny, Lock, Stock introduced a new filmmaker whose incoherent visual aesthetic seemed, at the time, a petty misdemeanor in light of his gift for creating an entire class of characters—ne’er-do-wells on the fringe of the underworld, as well as the hardened professionals stung by them—out of wholecloth.
It didn’t matter how paper thin the story’s gangland daytrippers and seasoned thugs were at heart. Their tendency toward getting up each other’s noses with competing ambitions—gang-against-gang-against-moldy-criminal-establishment—inspired Ritchie to build his ensemble heist movie as a modular playhouse. There, the story’s action picked up quirky momentum among sundry criminal cliques. But it was also quite different from the time-shifting deconstructions of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, against which Ritchie’s two films so far have been fruitlessly, lazily compared.
Snatch, unsurprisingly, is bigger than Lock, Stock, narratively more dense, more violent, and generally busier than its predecessor. It also has an established American movie star in Brad Pitt. The only thing missing is the element of surprise that caught people off guard with the first film and made them like it that much more.
The story concerns the passing of an enormous diamond from one competing party to another, a chain that includes a promoter (Jason Statham) of “unlicensed” boxing matches, an Irish gypsy (Pitt), a pair of pawnbrokers working for a Russian gangster (Rade Serbedzija), a digitally impaired thief named Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), an American crime boss (Dennis Farina), an East End hitman (Vinnie Jones), and a pig farmer (Alan Ford) given to feeding bits of his enemies to his swine. Between them all (and then some), many will fall and a handful will still be standing.
Ritchie hasn’t gained a lot as a visual director. A creature of his music-video-making days, he has lots of novel ideas about attacking one or another scene to good effect but lacks that sense of cinematic formalism and classicism that is, paradoxically, liberating for a visual storyteller. Perhaps that will come with time.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that Ritchie’s most important asset is the comic constant within his characters’ existential dilemmas. To a man (and they’re all men), Ritchie’s anti-heroes are at odds, in either large or small ways, with their own natures: Statham’s small-potatoes hustler, well out of his league once the hot rock comes into his life. Or Farina’s American mob boss, no fan of London but forced to go there after his diamond courier falls off the map. Or Pitt’s sensational, indecipherable gypsy pugilist, constitutionally unable to take a dive in the ring despite said fraud being bought and paid for by Ford’s gruesome farmer.
If John Huston had made a film about twenty people trying to steal a huge diamond from one another, the story would have ended with the jewel being a fake or having never existed or disappearing forever into the bowels of the Earth. It would be the dream that had mattered; the fever itself. The rest, the disappointment … well, that’s disappointment for you. But in Guy Ritchie’s world, the cumulative anxiety of constant missteps and imbalances is part of natural selection. It’s survival of the fittest in Snatch, and (anti-)social Darwinism has rarely been more entertaining.