LoveFilm Chronicles: Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we were in equal parts delighted and bemused by the contradictory Scrooged, this week we've been sent a little movie responsible for the last decade and a half of British Gangster Movies that we're still suffering through to this day. And whilst I've only seen Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, and found them incredibly dull, I have it on good authority from trusted friends that Lock Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels is actually a good lot of fun and should bear none of the ill will for what came in its wake.

Well, I apologise, but to everybody who told me I'd like Lock Stock: you were unfortunately wrong. Which leaves me at a bit of a loss for what to write next, because while I easily could just write a thousand words snarking on why I didn't like the film, it wouldn't be interesting and it's the exact opposite of what I want to do with this writing.

So with that in mind, let's dig in and see just what is going on in Guy Ritchie's directorial debut...

Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think the reason I don't like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is because it's a 1 hour and 47 minute joke told to people who are explicitly not me. The characters are archetypes, the situations inevitable, the audience meant to be laughing along because they enjoy the tropes of the genre and like seeing them embraced.

Which is a fair way to enjoy the film. There's a certain coen-esque charm to the way the story falls in on itself, the way the dominos come crashing down in such an unlikely way as to allow our heroes to both succeed and fail in ways for which the only appropriate reaction is yelling "of course. Of Course!" But there's no centre to Lock Stock, there's no heart or depth to the way it plays with genre, it's simply playing because it wants to play.

I'm almost loathe to write that up as a negative; hollow imitation is how anyone starts out, it is the first stepping stone in the development of any creative craft. Hell, Star Wars, the single most relevant film in western culture for the last half a century, is just George Lucas making a 30s Serial because god dammit he missed 30s Serials. But it does explain why there's a student film quality to Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels in a way that goes beyond sheer formal inexperience and budgetary constraints.

For example, each experimental technique and stylistic experiment is wholly purposeless because the story itself is without purpose. The plot is deliberately set up as a zero-sum game, a sitcomesque madcap adventure which collapses in on itself before the credits roll; it is a film about nothing.  Yet there is no attempt made to bring me into the wants and needs of these characters who exist as nothing more than references and icons. They're equally as awful and self-sabotaging as the Seinfeld crew but without the connective power of their deeply human flaws. I mean, I watched this movie three hours ago and the only main character I remember is Jason Statham and that's entirely because he's Jason Statham.

Though I suspect the differences between me and this movie go deeper than unengaging character work. It would be one thing if Lock Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels simply inspired apathy, but instead I actively disliked it, and the main characters I was meant to be rooting for. They are the perfect example of The Lads, a group of guys incapable of empathy or kindness, who instead fail upwards with their particular brand of cheeky charm. The crew in Lock Stock are positioned as everymen, likable and down on their luck, and the film assumes the audience will therefore be behind them. But they're not everymen, they're the chosen kind of perfect person, and the film's contortions to allow them to emerge despite their consistence incompetence serves as an unintentional commentary on the mediocrity that white men are afforded within British culture. Of course they'd be so cheeky, of course they'd be so cocky, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, the last thing I want to do is write a thinkpiece on Lad Culture, but I want to make clear that I'm not writing off British Gangster films or Lock Stock itself as wholly unredeemable. Even Lock Stock makes play at examining these archetypes on a deeper level, with the three public school weed dealers so clearly out of their depth. This gesture towards the way in which class tensions shape characters into their archetypes is the closest Lock Stock gets to an earnest engagement into something deeper than perpetuating generic tropes without examining what they might be saying. But these issues have been addressed so much better within genre fair; Attack The Block is a strikingly nuanced look at class, race and culture within London and it's also a ridiculous alien adventure. Hell, Dexter Fletcher (who plays Soap) went on to direct Wild Bill, a British Gangster film that tackles head on the intersection of class, crime and family in the way Lock Stock purports to and knocks it out of the water.

So it is with great disappointment that I announce I'm just not going to ever enjoy a Guy Ritchie film. Maybe Snatch will prove me wrong one day, but we'll just have to wait a while and see. And I don't hate Lock Stock at all, but I find it indulgent filmmaking into an indulgence I don't share. Which isn't even close to the worst thing a film can be.