There's definitely something weird going on in the British pop scene. Years after tasteful Yanks allowed classic works such as Saturday Night Fever and Grease to dissolve into our vast iconic array, villainous Limey programmers were still hyping them over there. Thus, the dual plagues of disco and '50s rock were never halted, and -- far worse -- it seems that a significant portion of the populace is still getting its kicks playing variations on Urban Cowboy. Obviously, such malfeasance must spring from a common source, emanating through some diabolical figurehead bent on the cultural decimation of an entire people. But who?
Of course, an artist of his stature (about nine feet tall -- not wide -- in those Battlefield Earth boots) must eventually evolve beyond "Stayin' Alive," "Greased Lightnin'" and "Lookin' for Love." So the former Sweathog accepted the invitation of a former video-store clerk to play a bit of slick bang-bang, and a tacky new phenomenon was born, with a lucrative soundtrack album hot on its heels. Quite obviously, Guy Ritchie -- then a director of promo spots for pop groups -- was paying very close attention to the early-'90s double whammy of Reservoir Dogs and the umpteenth Travolta renaissance known as Pulp Fiction. Fascinated by his newfound opportunity to blend ruthless violence with brash cutting and cartoonish characters, Ritchie emerged with a big, big hit -- so big that even Sting deigned to endorse it with an appearance (which is probably wise when one's wife is producing) -- called Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. For what it's worth, blame or credit for Ritchie's rise clearly belongs to Tarantino's giddy shots heard round the world.
So now we have Snatch. This second installment in the Ritchie canon greets us with a bunch of phallic guns -- note the pistol proudly frozen for a subtle moment with the director's credit -- and carries on much in the vein of Lock, Stock, with a bunch of angry hooligans running around shooting each other for no particular reason. The director clearly loves working with insipid caricatures, and if you dug it the first time around, you're bound to enjoy this stuff, as Ritchie has enhanced his savage ballet with a few new quirks. Not only are we treated to repeated proclamations that the vicious kingpin chops up his enemies and feeds them to his pigs (surely a prescient lift from the forthcoming Hannibal), but we also get an irritable Jewish jeweler, a nearly indestructible Russian gangster, and a trio of bumbling black amateurs who can't help creating wacky trouble for themselves. In the case of the latter, it's clear that Ritchie has been visiting the video store for doses of the Cosby-Poitier caper flicks from the '70s. In other words, he's growing.
Narrated by a thick boxing promoter called Turkish (Jason Statham), the movie assumes we are very, very stupid, and it holds our hands while introducing us, one by one, to its motley lot of losers, thugs and morons. With all the patience and delicacy of a starved rat on amphetamines, Ritchie rolls out his list of characters, which reads more or less like a roster of rejected thugs from Dick Tracy. Most fearsome is Brick Top (Alan Ford), the "unhinged, pig-feeding gangster" who makes his fine living fixing fights while happily stuffing subordinates into his pocket. Aided by his henchman Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones, daunting here as in Lock, Stock), he's got a score to settle with Turkish and his even thicker friend Tommy (Stephen Graham), whose fighter has been dropped by a wild Irish gypsy called "One Punch" Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt, with tattoos).
Alas, if only sly Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) had stuck to the crooked and narrow -- delivering a huge 84-karat diamond to New York kingpin Avi (Dennis Farina) and depositing smaller stones with the Jewish wannabe Doug the Head (Mike Reid) in London -- everybody could have settled down and played nice. But Franky's gambling addiction (gently underscored by quick, loud montages set to "Viva Las Vegas") leads him into the temptation of Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedzija), a wily "Cossack cunt" who convinces him to bet on the fights. Hired by Boris to off the high roller and collect his winnings, two pawnshop owners (Robbie Gee, Lennie James), their nearly useless getaway driver (newcomer Ade), and drum-and-bass sensation Goldie get mixed up in the action, until all sorts of chaos and hilarity and murder ensue. There's even an irrelevant and mean scene involving Ewen Bremner to please the Trainspotting crowd.
While it's definitely thudding and tiresome, Snatch is not entirely without merit. The locals certainly hold the work together (basically boys playing tough-guy shoot-'em-up -- cute, in a sad way), but it's the introduction of Pitt as the gypsy -- or "pikey" -- bareknuckled boxer that gives the film a much-needed lift. Pitt seems determined to capture Johnny Depp's crown of "most versatile young actor," and while that's a ways off, his curiously accented (though utterly comprehensible) Mickey is a confident step in that direction. Watching him spar, a bare-chested and sweaty retread of Fight Club's Tyler Durden, one is tempted to redub this movie Slight Flub, but his rich and rough performance overrides derision. The essence of the gypsy camp and the vital presence of his "Ma" (Sorcha Cusack) add a sense of humanity, however slight, that Lock, Stock sorely lacked.
Ultimately, Snatch emits the embarrassing aura of a filmmaker desperate to be considered cool yet utterly inept at finding original ways to reach that status. Even this year's trifling Circus offered more bangers than this mash. Also, while the Tarantino parallel quickly grows stale, that guy simply writes and directs better than Ritchie, somehow coaxing out charming laughs ("I like the way you stink") while Ritchie struggles to maintain our attention with dick jokes that would bore a five-year-old monkey. (Most of the dialogue -- like "I fookin' 'ate pikeys!" -- is amusing only for its Cockney delivery.) Yes, it's simply more of the trendy same from Ritchie, and whether we should appreciate his gunplay as an improvement over disco balls, hot rods and mechanical bulls is open to debate. As his Bullet Tooth Tony sagely puts it, "You should never underestimate the predictability of stupidity."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.