(Guy Ritchie, 2000)
In the wake of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), a spate of films have aimed to replicate its jazzy, frantic style, its knowing self-referentiality with their own representations of unshakably hip mobsters and icy killers. Most of these aspirants were swiftly dismissed as ineffective wannabes, offering nothing new but a relentless chain of pop culture references and unexpected violent episodes. It’s something of a relief, then, that Guy Ritchie’s Snatch works so well – it is so good, that it seems an appropriate epitaph, the high note required to put the post-Pulp underworld and its bumbling, comedic flunkies to rest, at least for a while. Snatch captures the mood of Tarantino’s work but avoids the slickness of dialogue, the polished brattiness of the American’s self-conscious patter. In this film, Ritchie allows the camera itself to do all the truly cool stuff. The voices – deliberately roughened, broken, sometimes completely indecipherable – stammer and stagger and lurch their way between threat and crisis. It is the camerawork in this film, however, that is granted the smartest trickery, gets the best laughs, and the cleverest lines. Writer/Director Ritchie sets the pace fast, and the camera seems compelled to follow, dashing from character to character, updating narrative threads, eliding great slabs of time in glorious fast motion (Dennis Farina’s Avi manages to speed from New York to London and back in several hilarious seconds) and pausing only momentarily to catch a breath before launching helter-skelter into the next sequence. This pace, and this directorial flair for story telling, character and style are the film’s greatest assets. Snatch is a film to be ridden for the sheer joy of the ride. In a break from its ancestors, the emphasis is not on its cleverness, although the film does indeed possess such qualities. Ritchie for the most part avoids the sort of smart-arsery that steps beyond the screen to give you a nudge and a wink and poke in the ribs. Snatch‘s purpose, it’s gleeful, passionate raison d’être is to simply set up and play with characters and situations, allowing them room enough to fool and be fooled and to play out their sorry absurdist lives in a loud, anarchic theatre.
It would be easy to dismiss Snatch as unoriginal, even pedestrian in its execution. Contemporary independent cinema, and productions coming out of England in particular, has proven adept at these sleek crime thrillers, filled with double, even triple crosses, outbursts of angry violence and pounding getaways. But I think it’s important to consider the ways in which this film both conforms to and rejoices in its narrative, its characters, its energy and humour before it is bound and restrained by its adherence to a popular genre. It’s true, Snatch is yet another multi-strand narrative involving a range of characters whose paths intersect and run parallel. The crimes and situations (in this case a jewel heist and a bare-knuckle boxing scam) are interwoven in a sometimes confusing, labyrinthine manner, as we watch an array of small time thugs and big time crime bosses slug it out and aim to outmanoeuvre each other, often winning and losing as a result of chance rather than craft. This is hardly new ground. But Ritchie gives Snatch such a charm and wit, and evokes such great performances from his motley tribe that these generic conventions seem revitalised. The odd in-joke (like Bullet Tooth Tony’s public adoration of Madonna – currently Guy Ritchie’s partner) and some clever situational gags keep Snatch rolling from the super cool opening credits to the final denouement. Its frame of reference and influence stems not only from Tarantino, but also from the modish ’70s blaxploitation era of Superfly (Gordon Parks, 1972). As well as this, through the employment of such devices as split screen and an ’80s britpop soundtrack (The Stranglers and The Specials feature, for example), Ritchie manages to incorporate sequences covering decades of cinematic style and cultural representation. Yet Snatch retains a clear contemporary feel, incorporating these divergent elements seamlessly, effortlessly. These disparate elements, the twists and one-liners all pile into Snatch in a joyous, smash and grab fashion, rolling with the pace and energy propelled by the assurance of the direction.
Apart from the great energy and tremendous camera play, Ritchie also extracts some great performances from actors who range from complete novices to famous Hollywood wonder boys. If the film has a central character, and it would be easy to argue that it doesn’t, Jason Statham’s Turkish probably best qualifies as the lead. As the narrator, and as the focus of the boxing narrative thread, Statham offers such a cool, enigmatic performance it’s easy to forget his limited experience – his first feature was Ritchie’s first film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Similarly, Turkish’s inept, fearful sidekick Tommy is played with wincing, nervous energy by Stephen Graham (from TV’s ‘The Lakes’), and as a team, they work perfectly. They possess such an easy camaraderie that there’s a sense of Laurel and Hardy about them, a sharp, East London duo foiled by ineptitude, but tied irrevocably by affection and loyalty. Vinnie Jones (also from Lock, Stock) makes an imposing Bullet Tooth Tony, a sort of British cyborg whose indestructibility is legendary, but it’s certainly Brad Pitt’s performance as the incomprehensible ‘Pikey’ Mickey O’Neill that is the standout. There’s a tremendous pleasure in seeing a man, adored by the women’s magazines, slave to cheesy Hollywood fare like Legends of the Fall (Ed Zwick, 1994) turn in such a deliberately anti-everything role. The joy is in watching Pitt steadfastly not make sense; his garbled gypsy/Irish brogue is a sort of rapid-fire donkey bray that defies comprehension. There is humour in this, coming from a man whose previous films (with the exception, perhaps of Fight Club [David Fincher, 1999]) have often demanded absolute clarity and inspired a direct adoration for his physical beauty, his cocky, white-toothed charm. Here he is messy, indistinct, affable, clever and a man unafraid of a good stoush. His gypsy ancestry, represented by the ‘Pikey’ community, are a rag-tag bunch of caravan dwelling layabouts, but as with all things in this film, Mickey O’Neill’s indigent family are not to be dismissed off-hand.
The best scenes in this film involve the uneasy alliance between Turkish, Tommy and Mickey, and their efforts to avoid becoming a meal for the pigs owned by the immovable, deadly Brick Top (Alan Ford). It’s in these sequences we see Turkish and Tommy at their fumbling best, barely maintaining control as the reins slip consistently out of their grasp. In direct contrast is the callous, magnified eye of Brick Top, who will kill them without remorse, and the wild unpredictability of Mickey O’Neill who may or may not do as Turkish requires, who could satisfy Brick Top or drive him to murder with one whimsical decision. There’s such a great blend of rigidity and spontaneity in these scenes that the humour erupts, rather than being simply delivered; the tension between these forces encourages a kind of cataclysm, and from the rupture springs a killer combination of humour, pathos and treachery.
The thrill of the heist film lies in the execution. In Snatch, the execution is the focus of the majority of its 103 minutes. It’s true sometimes the links between the several narrative strands that run through the film become somewhat strained, and there are moments when we do seem to have stepped into the Harvey Keitel section of Pulp Fiction. But Ritchie’s nervous energy in this film, the frantic pace and stylish direction makes Snatch an impulsive, giddy pleasure. Guy Ritchie made his name with Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. With Snatch, he consolidates on this foundation, presenting an amalgam of Tarantino, Altman and Parks in a film that is truly his own. Whilst the film may begin with the large jewel in the none-too-capable hands of Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), it is Ritchie and his exemplary cast that bring off the true heist. From the skyscrapers of New York to London pawnshops and onto ramshackle gypsy communities, Guy Ritchie does not lose sight of the centre of his film. In Snatch, he proves that Lock, Stock was no fluke, and establishes both himself and his creative team as a power to be reckoned with, building on the confidence of the previous film, and successfully delivering a finely crafted, hilariously raucous little gem.