Worth A Look: 19.93%
Pretty Bad: 9.25%
Total Crap: 9.61%
12 reviews, 209 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
In 1999 Guy Ritchie was riding a wave of popular acclaim, and it was widely whispered that he wore the mantle of the Next Big Thing. The trigger for this tsunami of adulation was Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, a fresh, vibrant slab of celluloid which reminded everyone who saw it why they endure the dross which dogs their eternal quest for the cinematic equivalent of buried treasure. Its success stemmed from a combination of four likeable, laddish protagonists; a snappy, streetwise sense of humour; and a surfeit of directorial innovation, packed into a rocket-propelled hundred-minute running time which made most of the competition look flabby.To say that Ritchie’s follow-up feature, Snatch, was widely anticipated is an understatement of epic proportions, but the favourable critical reaction which has greeted its release suggests that many are prepared to forgive Ritchie his sins on the basis of the lingering goodwill engendered by its predecessor. To put it bluntly, Snatch jettisons everything which was admirable about LS&TSB, while retaining the flaws which would have scuttled that particular effort were it not for the sheer magnitude of its strengths.
"The mighty have fallen"
To reveal much of Snatch’s plot would constitute a capital crime, so I’ll just say that it involves a diamond heist, pig-farming, money-grubbing gypsies, criminally stupid criminals, unlicensed bare-knuckle boxing and a decided lack of respect for human life. It’s an intriguing mix of whacked-out concepts, and to be fair the opening stanza leaves viewers with the impression that they are, once again, in the presence of greatness. There’s the obligatory run-down of the major players (de riguer for every hip independent flick since Trainspotting); an enticing opening monologue from the film’s ostensible hero, Turkish (Jason Statham); a (literal) flash of inspiration in succinctly summarising a jewel thief’s gambling habit – it’s a stylish succession of scenes, underpinned by Ritchie’s trademark frenetic pacing, and it’s a testament to his skills that you’re halfway through the film before you realise that it’s coming apart at the seams.
Which is a crying shame, for there’s enough talent on display to populate half-a-dozen films, and to waste these fine actors on a half-baked exercise in style-over-substance is nothing short of criminal. And my reasons for casting this film down with the also-rans? Well, for that we need look no further than …
So many characters, so little interest
LS&TSB featured a large number of supporting characters, but the script revolved around four likely lads who had evidently been lobotomised to remove any trace of common-sense from their greed-fuelled psyches. However, they were an agreeable bunch of losers, and the viewer’s identification with their plight was key to the film’s success. In addition, the minor players were possessed of sufficient personality that their relatively brief screen time did not unduly detract from their ability to insinuate themselves into the viewers’ minds (if not their hearts).
Snatch features a cast of characters that would do Cecil B DeMille proud, but then he invariably had a good three hours to work with. Ritchie’s mistake is that he ditches the notion of a group of central protagonists altogether, preferring instead to divide the available time evenly amongst his cast of thousands (nobody’s getting a Best Actor award here, since every character is supporting everyone else). The result is the celluloid equivalent of a Yeats poem – the centre cannot hold, and things fall apart in very short order indeed.
This may not have been a problem if the characters were able to raise the same level of interest as, say, the pot-growing stoners in LS&TSB. Unfortunately it was not to be, leaving us with the likes of Dennis Farina’s stereotypical American gangster; Rade Serbedzija‘s stereotypical Russian gangster; Brad Pitt as a charmless gypsy con-man (Ritchie seems to think that asking Pitt to deliver his lines in an unintelligible fashion is champagne humour); a fence whose only claim to fame is that he pretends to be Jewish; and a trio of bumbling petty thieves who are simply boring. The end result is exactly five characters who arouse some measure of interest, but none of them are permitted sufficient screen time to make the required impact (and I might add that one exits before the film is a third-over, with a suddenness which suggests that the actor in question may have been contracted to appear elsewhere).
However, the film may have yet been saved by a vintage dose of that irreverent Ritchie humour. Which brings us to …
Reaching For The Restraining Order
The fact that certain parts of LS&TSB were possessed of an unsettling meanness tends to get buried beneath the memory of Ritchie’s keen ear for humorous dialogue. Unfortunately, the laughs in Snatch are few and far between, not the least because much of the attempted humour is reheated, rehashed and otherwise regurgitated from Ritchie’s first outing. There are certainly some priceless moments (Vinnie Jones facing down a bunch of replica-wielding bumblers springs to mind), but most of the remaining humour either springs from senseless violence or is simply uninspired (see the entry under Brad Pitt’s vocal delivery earlier).
As a result Ritchie’s mean streak comes to the fore, lending the film a comparatively darker feel. There may be some who will find an extended monologue on the easiest way to dispose of a murder victim amusing, but to many others it will simply leave a rather bad taste in the mouth. It’s certainly not impossible to pull this kind of thing off (Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas managed it without incident), but Ritchie seems to revel in the reprehensible, and the fact that it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek is small solace indeed.
Paradoxically, Ritchie’s lack of restraint deserts him when he needs it the most. Which is to say …
Don’t Turn Away When I’m Talking To You!
Make no mistake – Snatch is a stylish film. Ritchie is a demon in the editing room (at times his rapid cuts almost invite nausea), and one of his favourite techniques – cutting to an image which visualises a line of dialogue – is used to outstanding effect.
Unfortunately, one of Ritchie’s other favourite techniques is a refusal to portray the violence his characters so casually commit, preferring to concentrate on the aftermath. The classic example is the major shoot-out in LS&TSB, where he cuts to the exterior of the building while the mayhem is enacted within.
With Snatch Ritchie pursues this vision to the bitter end, to the extent that, despite a rather large body count, not once do you witness anybody actually dying. If you called him on it he’d probably mumble something about leaving it to the viewer’s imagination, but I would suggest that he’s taken what would be a nifty idea if you used it once and flogged it to death.
Let’s get one thing straight – Snatch is a violent movie. It features hard men doing hard things, up to and including amputation without anaesthetic and shoulder-shrugging murder. If, however, you refuse to depict a major gunfight, or allow a hated villain to be blown away off-screen, you risk leaving the viewer feeling vaguely cheated. To play it straight is not a case of pandering to the masses, but rather a simple matter of acknowledging that the director’s desire to try something a little different can be at the cost of the viewer’s enjoyment, and that to give the audience what they want is not necessarily an act of emasculation, but rather a gift from an artist to his fans (see Stone and Scorsese for relevant case studies).
Of course, it’s possible that Ritchie simply doesn’t realise that he’s breaking a cardinal rule of hard-boiled thrillers for no good reason, or maybe he’s just trying to avoid accusations of penning overtly violent scripts. Whatever the reason, we can only hope that, by his third feature, it’s an idea whose time has come and gone.
The Comedy of Coincidence
Another of LS&TSB’s flaws which got lost in the wash was the fact that the script gave new meaning to the word “contrived”. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Snatch takes matters a step further, presenting us with one of the most coincidence-laden storylines to hit the stage since Shakespeare hung up his quill.
Now, I’m all for suspending the ol’ disbelief for the duration, but there came a time when I began to tire of Ritchie’s smart-ass approach to plotting. It becomes almost predictable in its unpredictability, and the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming. In addition, Ritchie’s answer to tying up a stray plot thread is to put a bullet into the character in question, which is hardly a masterful resolution.
So by now we’re reduced to talking about an army of screen-time deprived characters stumbling through a contrived plot which is light on humour and heavy on general nastiness, except when you need it the most. However, it would be wrong to label Snatch a complete failure. The acting is top-notch (there’s nary a weak link anywhere down the line), and when its major elements (plotting, humour, directing) gel it’s a thing to behold. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often enough to save the film, and it earns my ire not so much for being an average runaround (which puts it in good company), but because it could have been so much more. The inexplicably favourable critical reaction will probably ensure Ritchie serves up more of the same for his next outing, and if so we can look forward to the gradual decline of one of the new millennium’s best bets for a better tomorrow.Guy Ritchie - snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. There’s my quote for the papers, and to all a goodnight.
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originally posted: 11/29/00 13:47:12