Just like his new bride Madonna, filmmaker Guy Ritchie is a master of style over substance.
With his second film, "Snatch," Ritchie continues his tour of London's East End underworld with even more technical panache and humor than in his breakthrough debut, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Sure, there are few insights into human nature or deep meaningful themes in these movies. But Ritchie's command of the visual medium is so skillful, his criminals so memorable and his writing so undeniably entertaining, that it's a wasted criticism to try and intellectually dissect these movies. Snatch is pure kineticism, comparable in impact to "Run Lola Run," "Go" or even "The Matrix."
"My name is Turkish. Funny name for an Englishman," our narrator/hero (Jason Statham) explains. Turkish is a gambling parlor owner who, along with his buddy Tommy (Stephen Graham), seeks to slip into the world of illegal, bare-knuckle boxing promotion. His first scheduled match partners him with a ruthless, bespectacled kingpin known as Brick Top (Alan Ford), whose side business of running a pig farm has little to do with his fondness for pork. When Turkish's fighter Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) gets whipped in a backwoods brawl by a mush-mouthed gypsy named Mickey (Brad Pitt, in yet another freakishly un-Hollywood role), the new promoter asks the "piker" to fight in George's place even though Brick Top wants the boxer to take a dive in the fourth round.
Throw in a jewel heist of an 86-carat diamond, a greedy but inept group of pawnshop owners, mobile homes, a gluttonous pit bull and assorted gypsies, tramps and thieves, and "Snatch" becomes a microcosm of the London crime world - all filtered through Ritchie's heightened tempo and sneaky dialogue.
By introducing dozens of characters, each more colorful than the last, Ritchie faces the difficult task of making sure the viewer doesn't become completely lost before the film is five minutes old. So the writer-director resorts to three strategies, all of which pay off handsomely.
First, he casts actors based on how they look. No, not in a pretty-boy "Beverly Hills 90120" way rather, he goes after people who are absolutely unmistakable in their physical appearance. (The noted exceptions are the two protagonists, played by nondescript actors - perhaps to escalate their everyman identification?) Sergio Leone first popularized this method as a way of overcoming the language barriers of international audiences through the use of actors' physical peculiarities. The British director exploits it even further.
Next, Ritchie gives the characters unforgettable names: Frankie Four Fingers, Bullet Tooth Tony, Rosebud, Brick Top, Doug the Head, Boris the Blade. Literally, every character has a mnemonic hook, which is pounded home through further description in the narration. For instance, when introducing Boris (Radhe Sherbedgia), Turkish claims he's "as bent as the Russian sickle and as hard as the Russian hammer."
If this isn't enough to acclimate the audience, a tour de force intro sequence solidifies the names with the faces. Here, each principal player is presented with their name in title cards through a mix of wild edits, fast zooms, rotating images, freeze frames in short, every cinematic trick you can think of, and maybe a few you've never seen.
If there is a slight familiarity to Ritchie's effort, it's because the style and tone of his previous film is prevalent throughout "Snatch." Even though this caper obviously has a more recognizable cast and better production values, the same hazy, grimy tint that permeates "Lock, Stock" and most of England, for that matter is infused into his latest flick. Another "seen this before" feeling the film evokes may arise from the sight of a shirtless Pitt taking punch after punch an image wrung dry by "Fight Club." Pitt may want to try a cinematic sport next time where he gets to wear a helmet and a jersey.
Also, will Ritchie ever introduce a meaningful female character? His world of articulate goons is all but devoid of estrogen; the only thing less visible in the director's landscape is an average citizen not somehow connected to crime. If he does generate a substantial feminine role for his next movie, hopefully Madonna will be unavailable.
These are minor squabbles, though, for a film that is so reliably amusing. With "Snatch," vicious underworld hooligans all over the world now have something to applaud.