COMIC NIHILISM: 'Lock, Stock & Barrels,' 'Go,' 'Matrix'

Article excerpt

Charles Dickens is alive and well and working as a casting director in the East End of London. Well, not really, but it was interesting while watching Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-a huge hit in England and doing pretty well here-to find that a Dickensian grotesquery in the look and sound of its villains could spice a modern gangster story. But, of course, spice is most needed when the meat of a story is not of the first freshness.

Because, as far as plot goes, you might as well be watching a Frank Sinatra Rat Pack movie, such as Robin and the Seven Hoods. Four young lowlifes in the East End, desperate to pay off a gambling debt, snatch a pile of loot from dope dealers who are backed by Caribbean gangsters. This sets off a chain reaction of double dealings which pits all the gangs in the neighborhood against one another. This is really a black comedy about a feeding frenzy: The gangsters are sharks maddened by the scent of blood, and we get to watch them feast in a very small tank. Pauline Kael wrote of the villains of The Maltese Falcon that they were "so ruthless and greedy that they become comic." That's true here, too, and the comedy is abetted by writer-director Guy Ritchie's dialogue, which has a cockney pungency and wit that would do Sam Weller proud (if Sam had been a creep).

But it is really in his casting and direction of the bad guys that Ritchie is truly Dickensian. I can't remember when I've last seen such a menagerie of animal-men: here, baldness and fat and scragliness and squinty eyes become manifestations of malice. If all the killings in the final reels are bearable, it's because we feel that a race of monsters is destroying itself so that humans (the four young hoods) may survive.

But how human are the heroes? Ritchie means for us to sympathize with them because: (1) they're more physically prepossessing than the older thugs (but who isn't?); (2) far less brutal (but, again, who isn't?); and (3) they stole out of sheer desperation instead of sheer greed (but, then again, they're in debt because of their gambling, which itself was motivated by sheer greed). Actually, don't we simply attend the fortunes of these louts because we are stuck with them as protagonists? Like all protagonists, even the vilest of antiheroes, they lead us into the story and their ups and downs give shape to the plot. But I could have cared less whether they lived or died and, in fact, I could scarcely remember their faces two hours after I left the theater, while the mugs of the old hoods have remained in my mind's eye for weeks. Though he disclaims the comparison, Ritchie has been hailed as a British Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) because, like the American, he uses violence for comic shock and his dialogue bops and zings. However, Tarantino's characters, though steeped in gore, can occasionally move you with their Hemingwayesque codes of loyalty and sudden accesses of compassion. Ritchie's punks stick together for no apparent reason other than they're the same age and they're used to drinking together.

The New Yorker's film critic, Anthony Lane, sneered at the actor Tom Cruise for exclaiming during a screening of Ritchie's film, "This movie rocks!" But I think the remark works both as endorsement and stricture. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels shakes you up, slaps you around, sends you out of the theater agreeably rattled. But, two hours later, you've got nothing to hum. Really good rock 'n' roll songs are hummable precisely because they do more than rock.

ock, Stock may have bits of Tarantino sprinkled into its Dickensiana but Go wouldn't even exist without Pulp Fiction as precedent, encouragement, model, and fund-raiser. I say fund-raiser because the bigwigs at Columbia surely financed the production of John August's script with its complicated, playful plot structure only because it is a slavish imitation of the earlier crime film. So, is Go anything except a Tarantino epigone? …