The 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was directed and written by Guy Ritchie who would eventually create the reboot of the solid blockbuster series, Sherlock Holmes. His earlier movie is about four criminal friends who are roped into three dramatic events in their life that are going on at the same time. This film is very unique because of the simultaneous structure of the plot tied together with parallel editing. It has so many things to enjoy about it: the atmospheric East London locations, the lush visuals, and the distinctive camera angles employed by Ritchie. Everything in this film catches the eye. Ritchie’s movie is a thrill to watch because he keeps you constantly on edge.
The theme of the film is about karma and the way fate plays its fickle finger on the characters’ lives. If the characters in the film have a certain set of moral standards, then their future fates are left to decide whether or not they live or die. If a person is of an “honorable” background (at least within the code of thieves) or has moral beliefs in loyalty to his friends, in the end they will triumph over the darker elements of the criminal underworld. As you watch the film, you start to understand that some of the characters in this film aren’t exactly great people but they are decent enough to do the right thing for themselves and for their friends in the end.
The film starts off with four close friends: Eddy (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Stathom), and Soap (Dexter Fletcher). They are getting 100,000 euro notes so that Eddy can get into one of the many sleazy card games put on by porn mogul Harry “the Hatchet” Lonsdale (played by P. H. Moriarty.) Harry botches the game so that Eddy losses the 100,000 that he handed them to enter. Now he has to pay an additional amount of 400,000 euros. Harry tells Eddy that he wants the money to be given to him at the end of a full week or else he’ll have to deal with his East End enforcers. This is the inciting action that triggers the entire plot. How are these friends going to raise that huge amount of money? This inspires a great mix of dark comedy and violence for the rest of the film.
After several days with no luck acquiring the funds, Eddy comes home and overhears his neighbors, a gang of crooks led by a man named Dog played by Frank Harper. The gang is planning a robbery on some pot growers who may be loaded not only with drugs but the needed money to solve the debt problem. Eddy sends this information to his long-time pals. He is intending for them to rob the shady neighbors as they come back from the theft of the marijuana dealers. The gang of four installs taping equipment to monitor the neighbors.
Tom obtains a pair of antique shotguns from a black market dealer, known as Nick “the Greek” (Steven Marcus) who also strikes a deal with Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), a sociopathic gangster, to buy the stolen drugs. Nick had purchased the guns from a pair of foolish small time criminals, Gary and Dean, who in turn had stolen them from a bankrupt British lord as part of a job for Harry “the Hatchet.” None of the characters realize that, of the entire stolen firearms collection, Harry’s only desire was those two extremely valuable antique shotguns now in the hands of Tom. After learning the guns had been sold, an enraged Barry “the Baptist,” Harry’s personal bodyguard, threatens the two idiots into getting them back. The plot thickens, pointing towards future mayhem. As a sad trivia aside, the film was dedicated to Lenny McLean who performed Barry “the Baptist.” Mr. McLean had died of cancer only one month before the film’s premiere.
The neighbors’ robbery gets underway according to schedule. Despite the death of a gang member stupidly by his own gun and a shaky chance encounter with a traffic cop, the job against the pot dealers is a success. Thinking they’re finally safe when the crooks arrive back at their London apartment, that neighbor gang is ambushed by our four friends. They take the neighbor’s looted money and return later that night to stash the goods next door. It is now time for a crazy night of celebratory drinking.
Socio Rory discovers that the drugs he was going to buy were actually stolen from him. The marijuana growers were in his employees. Rory interrogates/tortures Nick into telling where the four friends live. Meanwhile, furious about their loss, Dog throws one of his men through the wall of their apartment. They discover the taping equipment on the other side and eventually all the stolen money and drugs. As Dog counts the money, the crooked neighbors prepare an ambush. Meanwhile Gary and Dean, trying to recover the antique shotguns, call on a traumatized Nick, who directs them to the same apartment address. Big Chris, Harry’s debt collector, leaves with his son to the same destination as the four friends drive home from their bar crawl. Fate has played all the cards on the fortunes of all the characters. This will be the climax of the plot.
Rory and his gang assault the apartment and have a shootout with the neighbors, resulting in the deaths of all but Dog and Winston, Rory’s chemist. Winston makes off with the marijuana. Dog is robbed by Big Chris of the shotguns and money during his escape. Gary and Dean spot Big Chris with the guns and hastily follow him, while the four friends return to find their loot missing. Big Chris gives the guns and cash to Harry, but on his return to the car he finds Dog threatening to kill his son if he doesn’t retrieve the money. Desperate to get the guns, Gary and Dean attack Harry and Barry at their office, not knowing what Harry looks like and not noticing Barry until after he retaliates. Within seconds all four men are dead.
The four friends are arrested, but confirmed to be innocent after the traffic cop identified Dog’s dead gang as the primary suspects. When they retreat back to the bar, they discover Tom is out on a mission to throw the priceless shotguns off a bridge into the River Thames. In looking at a catalog of antiques, the friends learn the guns are worth thousands of dollars. As they try to call, Tom puts the phone in his mouth and the film ends with him trying to throw the shotguns off the bridge that he failed throwing the first time. Now, with the guns are on a ledge and the phone is in Tom’s mouth, the film concludes with Tom not knowing what to do next. The movie fades to black in a hilarious cliffhanger making for a perfect ending
The emotional tone of the film is that of fear, remorsefulness, and giddy happiness. Another emotional quality felt is ironic surprise. The irony that the characters have to face in nearly every scene is hilarious. The film has a delightfully quirky dark comedic quality. It always puts these characters that you sometimes feel sorry and sympathize, in uneasy situations that they have to pry their way out some manner. Similar and comparable films that share this unique gallows humor include Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.
The structure of the film is fairly straightforward following a chronological development of the plot. There was one scene where Ritchie uses flash-forward in his story telling. The sequence involves a car crash. Then the next scene was about the same car crash only it details how it happened and who it happened too. It is a clever use of time manipulation.
The musical soundtrack is mostly previously released music that wasn’t originally orchestrated for the film. The score contains a wide variety of music from rock to reggae with songs including “The Boss” and “The Payback” by James Brown, “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield, “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges, and “Walk This Land (Remix)” by Ez Rollers. The use of these musical hits from the 1960s and 1970s is diverse and brilliant.
The cinematography by director of photography, Tim Maurice-Jones, is excellent. The most memorable parts include the POV (point of view) camera sequence on Eddie when he is in disarray having just lost all of the money. When Harry dramatically dies, the production team slows things down. You can see the brutal action unfold while time is now going at a much slower intense pace using Slo Mo, a signature Ritchie technique later used in his successful Sherlock Holmes series. Also there is a sequence where a chunk of one of the robber’s hair is completely blown off. The way Maurice-Jones and Ritchie used smoke and lighting in that “hair-raising” moment was pretty charming. It was reminiscent of those old slap stick cartoons where something ungodly happens to a character. You think the cartoon character is badly damaged but they just have a slight burn or minor scratch.
This film has to be one of the best films I’ve seen recently. It is an exciting take on the crime world and how most criminals get the barrel in the end. The film is stunningly balanced between being humorous and serious at the same time. Its use as a “hyperlink cinema” piece is one for the books. Ritchie does an excellent job in connecting all the different stories, playing with time, and interweaving surprising plot twists. He makes you feel joy when you like a certain character from a different part of the story. Then you see them interact with a dangerous character, you had no idea would ever see him or her again. He creates a feeling of immense tension.
The film is a tightly constructed masterpiece. Ritchie’s movie just does not stop for a second. It is full of refreshingly dark humor and filmed with real style and flair. Like a great book, I didn’t want it to end. That is how much I enjoyed this film. You feel such a connection with the story and with the characters. In the paltry 107 minutes this movie is played, you want to watch these characters lives played out even more.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has a certain message or moral: to never be too greedy and always try to stick to an ethical path otherwise you might get the heat of life in the end. There are not moral choices being made in this movie. But nevertheless, there are moral people in this story. Even though they do bad things and sometimes pay dearly for it, their hearts are in the right place. Sometimes. Let’s just pray they won’t get into any trouble next time