Crime Pays in Pounds

Chicago--

Every year, we Yanks invite a British sleeper to make a bundle at our art houses: In 1998 it was Elizabeth; the year before it was The Full Monty; and the year before that, it was Trainspotting. Now the next big thing from the U.K. looks to be Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a grimy lowlife farce endorsed by Tom Cruise, showered with praise at Sundance, and rightly deemed "Tarantinoesque" for its convoluted crime narrative and bloody humorous mix of moods.

As if all this weren't hype-making enough, Lock, Stock writer-director Guy Ritchie has become the latest first-time filmmaker to be romantically linked in the press with Madonna, raising the question of whether the stateside buzz is getting bothersome for this Brit. "Not at all," declares the black-clad, boyish-looking 30-year-old, sitting in a faux-Irish pub at a time of morning too early for Guinness. "[The U.S.] is the biggest territory in the world, and if the film does well here, it'll change everybody's life. I'd love to get caught on the crest of a wave, to become someone's darling. I don't care [about] the reasons."

Stealing from the best: Guy Ritchie (right) with actor Vinnie Jones on the set of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Stealing from the best: Guy Ritchie (right) with actor Vinnie Jones on the set of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Such nonchalant desire for notoriety befits Lock, Stock's protagonists: four enterprising young blokes in East London who, without taking ethics into much consideration, try to recapture the 500,000 quid they lost in a card game. This certainly isn't to say that Ritchie himself lacks morals, although his smooth, sardonic demeanor--not to mention his reported arrest years ago for housing unauthorized TVs and VCRs--does peg him as the kind of cool cat who might not always let the law dictate his behavior. And indeed, the director ends up making a confession of sorts during our meeting. "Life involves doing the occasional [thing] authority has to sneer at," he says. "I understand why there are laws, but the reality is that there are some things you have to do that make more sense either for the individual or for common decency."

One of Ritchie's recent breaches was his choice to cast actual ex-cons as some of Lock, Stock's supporting thugs. "You can't have actors playing these guys," he says. "You can in the States: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino play villains and get away with it. But you can't do that at home [in London], because there are too many nuances, such as the accent. You can't get trained actors to sound like the guys in my film." (Credit Ritchie with the fact that most American viewers will be challenged to decipher the lads' thickly accented "Mockney" slang.)

Nevertheless, the filmmaker may have gotten more authenticity than he bargained for when a few of his shady performers began acting their parts off-camera. "Some of them couldn't keep their hands in their pockets--they kept their hands in everyone else's pockets," he reports. "And I lost quite a few of the [actors] because they disappeared behind bars." Not even the film's leading cast was fully clean of the criminal impulse: Actor Jason Statham used to sell counterfeit perfume on the street (just like his character); and soccer-player-turned-actor Vinnie Jones, playing a debt collector, got arrested during the shoot for beating up his next-door neighbor. "He wound up in the nick," says Ritchie, using the British slang term for "jail." "We had to push his schedule back a day or two."

 

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

 
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