Brutally funny

“What’s interesting about London from a filmmaker’s perspective,” says Guy Ritchie, “is, because of the class system and because it’s so cosmopolitan, you’ve ended up getting these very interesting subcultures. England just happens to be a place that incubates that kind of eccentricity. England is an extreme country. It’s a postcolonial superpower and by virtue of that, there’s a reaction against that kind of imperialist philosophy.”

Ritchie’s discussing the London underworld of Snatch, where Russian gun dealers, black pawn-shop owners, Jewish diamond merchants and Irish gypsy (aka traveler) boxers commingle with the low-level English thugs and hustlers familiar from Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Both his films are unabashed testosterone-fests, so the irony is that Ritchie is newly famous because of a woman, his wife, Michigan-born pop diva Madonna.

The 32-year-old writer-director, a London native, decided to stick to familiar territory because these characters still hold a large fascination for him.

“Living in London,” he explains, “you are introduced to the underbelly, if you like, of society at some stage or another. I was always caught by the size of their personalities and that they were such actors and their stories were so big and bold. I just felt that there was a film already in the making with these characters.”

As complex a clockwork of coincidence and timing as Lock, Stock was, Ritchie chose to “up the ante a bit” with Snatch, so the violence is more brutal and intimate, even as the situations are more overtly comic.

“I can’t help but inject humor and levity into things,” Ritchie states, “just because that’s the type of person I am. I found that the characters that inspired this kind of piece were very humorous, so in turn, that’s reflected in the work.”

After the success of his debut in Great Britain, Guy Ritchie found himself at the receiving end of a number of stories from various underworld types. A grisly character trait of Snatch’s vicious criminal boss, Brick Top, came from a discussion at a London soccer game.

“I’d made Lock, Stock,” he relates, “so I kept having gangsters coming up to me all over the place saying, ‘I did this to Johnny and I did this to Freddy, put me in the film.’ So this guy I was sitting next to starts telling me the most efficient way of getting rid of bodies, and it wasn’t laying them under roads. For the guys that really had to get rid of a lot of bodies, there was nothing like the pig farm because the only evidence that was left was fingernails, teeth and hair. Then what they’d do is grind them up and throw that to the four corners of the wind and then, ‘I don’t know what you mean, officer.’ Once it’s been through a pig’s intestines, what are you going to do?”

Another aspect — the world of unsanctioned bare-knuckle boxing — came from Lenny McLean, who played kingpin Barry the Baptist in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

“(McLean) was the hardest bare-knuckle boxer that England’s ever seen,” explains Jason Statham, who appears in both films, “and he’s a big brawler of a man. We used to ask him about this stuff and what he used to do, and we’d actually seen some fights that he had on VHS cassette. They’re unpredictable circumstances, these events, but there’s certain ones that are semicontrolled, where they’re in a ring and pretty much what Guy portrays in Snatch.”

Ritchie not only shines a light on unseen worlds, but populates his films with nonprofessionals. Statham had never acted before, and made his living as a street trader, re-creating his hard-sell pitch for the opening scene of Lock, Stock.

These unconventional performers, with their rough-hewn faces, tough reputations and strong accents, lend verisimilitude and a distinctive flavor to Ritchie’s films. In turn, the director nurtures their raw charisma and “tells us just to use our energy in a particular way,” says Statham. “He can work with any person — he can just adapt someone and make them relax. He’s got a great way with personalities.”

Another “hard man” who got a new career via Lock, Stock is former English soccer star Vinnie Jones, who finds a parallel between the male bonding of Ritchie’s gangster ensemble films and his own sports career.

“I think you’ve all got to prepare individually,” Jones says of soccer and acting, “then basically you go in, and it’s team spirit. You’re all pulling in the same direction. It’s quite shocking, the similarity.”

American actor Dennis Farina feels an affinity with Statham and Jones. He began acting only after working 20 years as a Chicago cop, a detective in the nonsyndicated organized crime unit (which deals with the kind of professional thieves who populate Snatch).

There’s no quintessential criminal or cop, Farina believes, and the genre is infinitely adaptable. It’s the individual traits that matter, and Ritchie’s colorful characters have enough quirks to make them distinctive.

“I think the personality’s the thing,” says Farina. “I don’t think what a guy does for a living is really important. I think it’s what his personality brings to that occupation that is.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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