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Thespians & Thieves; Actors, real life hoodlums meet in 'Lock, Stocks and Two Smoking Barrels

Lads. Geezers. Villains. Hardmen. Hooligans.

The English working class has many colorful terms for gangsters, and the above and many more fly fast and furiously throughout "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." A complicated crime comedy set in London's rough-and-tumble East End, the film pits dozens of young and not-so-young toughs against one another in an escalating series of rip-offs and reprisals initially marked by verbal jousts but increasingly settled by firepower.

Sounds familiar? Not if you listen closely.

"If you see the film, you won't say it's a British 'Pulp Fiction,' " writer-director Guy Ritchie says of his first feature film. "It does fall under that umbrella, and I don't mind that people like to compartmentalize these things, but it's quite its own thing."

"I think it's very original," adds Steve Tisch, one of the film's executive producers. "It's got a story that's a lot of fun to follow, even the bad guys are charming in their way; but while I've read that Guy Ritchie has been described as Tarantino-like, I don't agree with those comparisons. He really does stand alone."

British audiences apparently detect something uniquely pleasing in the film. The modestly budgeted, $1.6 million production has grossed $22 million in the United Kingdom alone; that places it in the the top rank of homegrown Brit hits, an exclusive turf occupied by the likes of "The Full Monty," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Trainspotting." Ritchie is already overseeing a television series based on the picture.

Pretty good for a movie starring scads of mostly unknown young Englishmen. The biggest name in the cast is rock star Sting, who has a few scenes as a publican (and whose wife, Trudie Styler, was an executive producer). The most familiar faces, to Brits anyway, belong to the late, bare-knuckle boxer Lenny McLean and soccer star Vinnie Jones, both of whom play enforcers for a neighborhood godfather, Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty).

The film's main focus is on a half-dozen competing gangs of guys in their 20s. The main group we follow - the de facto good guys, if you will - consists of Eddie (Nick Moran), whose loss of 500,000 British pounds in a rigged card game with Hatchet Harry sets a series of schemes in motion; Tom (Jason Flemyng), a shady entrepreneur; Bacon (Jason Statham), an even shadier sort who peddles stolen goods on sidewalks; and Soap (Dexter Fletcher), who actually has a legal job as a chef.

The lads toured America, along with Sting, Jones and Ritchie, to promote "Lock, Stock" recently. Many others associated with the movie probably would not have gotten visas.

"About 75 percent of the guys in the movie are real criminals," Ritchie estimates. "I kid you not. They are actors, but they also happen to be villains. Fifty percent of them are ex-cons, and 25 percent of them ... I'd hate to think what they get up to that they haven't been nicked for yet.

"But the theory behind that is, for this genre, it was much easier to cast those people for these kinds of roles because they've spent so much of their lives acting in front of magistrates or whatever. They're very familiar with putting on a face, and their timing is impeccable. So once you can demystify the camera - maybe throw a wig on it and make it look like a judge - you've got, I think, a highly trained actor."

Indeed, the gravel-voiced Statham used to earn his living selling stolen goods out of a suitcase, just like his character does in the movie. He tells good stories, too; even though the film's press materials explain that Ritchie first spotted Statham modeling in a Levi's jeans ad, he has a more interesting tale.

"I happened to be working on the streets one day, and Guy Ritchie comes past and buys five sets of hooky jewelry off me," Statham says. "He came back later in the day, stitched-up and asking for his money back, and I said two words to him. One of them was 'off.'

"With that, he said, 'You cheeky little so-and-so. I'll give you a part in my film.' "

For Flemyng, Fletcher and Moran - properly trained actors all - working with actual villains was no big deal.

"We come from a posher version of the neighborhood in this film," says the tall, blond Flemyng, who speaks the most decipherable English of the lot. "But these kinds of characters, they pepper our existence, if you know what I mean. We all live in areas - hopefully not for too long! - which these people frequent."

"It's a very British film in some respects, and the roughnecks brought a certain authenticity to it," adds Moran, who resembles a young Stevie Winwood. "But we also had them out of their own environment, and we were in our environment."

"We were out to make a film, not rob a bank," adds Dexter Fletcher, a former child actor who has the most extensive filmography of the team, including an appearance in one of the handful of classic English crime movies, "The Long Good Friday." "If it was the opposite, we would've asked their advice. But it was a great leveler. They weren't being hardmen or bank robbers, they were trying to make this film, trying to be actors.

"And we were trying to be actors, as well," Fletcher adds with a laugh. "So we all kind of coalesced. There was no room for big egos."

Nor was there room for the kind of graphic violence that American crime films revel in. Though many die by the movie's conclusion, Ritchie prefers to show the aftermath rather than the commission of bloodshed, a strategy that has no doubt led to the picture's wide acceptance in gun-shy Britain.

"I'm interested in action stuff, but as a director I've never been interested in car chases, explosions or blood and violence in the gratuitous sense," Ritchie says. "But it is a film and villains, so people need to get slapped. You need to imply that, but people don't need to have that rubbed in their faces."

"It's much more engaging for an audience to imagine what's happened," Sting reckons, "rather than just to show every detail of blood spilling out of people's heads."

That was one of the things that attracted Sting to the project. But the main draw was "my wife's enthusiasm for the script," he says. "She really believed that the script worked, that it was funny and it had energy. She was right."

That script also impressed American producer Steve Tisch ("Forrest Gump," "American History X") enough to make him invest some of his own money in the project.

"I'm a big boy, and I certainly knew the risks going in, but I instinctively felt that this had a real shot at working," says Tisch, who has already made a substantial profit on his investment. But he also acknowledges that, outside of festival screenings and good reaction from critics, "We still don't know how it's going to play over here." The thick, Cockney slang that runs rampant through "Lock, Stock" could be a challenge for American ears. But Tisch never considered subtitles for the States.

"Part of what's great and special about the film is the way that the audience settles in and listens very closely because of the dialect and the accents; that's part of the fun of seeing the movie," the producer says. "I think you've got to focus pretty hard on what they're saying for the first five minutes, but once you find that comfort level, I think the rest is just a great ride."

Besides, subtitles would be antithetical to the kind of boisterous lad culture that the movie celebrates.

"We're working-class people and, of course, we're very proud of it," says Vinnie Jones, who plays the movie's debt collector, Big Chris, a professional intimidator who brings his pre-teen son along on strong-arm jobs. "We feel like we've gotten out of the trap so many are stuck in, and we want to represent them people."

But these blokes are no fools; they're hoping "Lock, Stock's" success will translate to America ... and that that will translate to high-paying Hollywood jobs.

"We'll grovel," former fence Statham says of their desire for work in the U.S. "We'll grovel! I'd play Kate Winslet in 'Titanic 2'!"

They all probably would, given the offer. Although at least one of these tough-talking hoodlums would have to get his mother's permission first.

"This is so unvillain and ungangsterlike, but it is true," Flemyng sheepishly admits. "When I left home, my mum got out a compass, drew a two-mile circle around the house on a map and said, 'You can't move out of this area.'"

"That really is what you call tied to the apron strings," Fletcher says, ribbing his colleague in cinematic crime. "Apron strings about two miles long."

"That's 'cause real geezers look after their mothers," Flemyng ripostes.

"But it's the other way around with Jason; his mother looks after him," Moran interjects with the kind of perfect timing you usually only hear in the best movies.

And that's heard throughout "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."

Source: The Daily News
Date: 5th March 1999