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by: Michael Dequina

Fans of Guy Ritchie's 1998 cult fave Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels will be happy to learn that shacking up with Madonna and siring her a son have had no discernible effect on the writer-director--at least not one noticeable in his second film, Snatch. (There is, however, one blatant concession to the union, and that is the prominent placement of the Material Girl's vintage tune "Lucky Star"--hardly a bad thing, if you ask me.) In fact, nothing appears to have affected or changed Ritchie at all between this latest film and his last, for Snatch is a full-throttle comedic crime caper that more than resembles Lock, Stock... yet remains a rollicking good time in its own right.

Like Lock, Stock... and just about every other entry in the neo-noir-laffer genre, Snatch takes an assortment of eccentric characters and tosses them in a blender of danger, double-cross, dark comedy, and a dog (OK, the last element is specific to this film). Our guide through the convolutions of this twisty tale is Turkish (Jason Statham), an unlicensed boxing promoter who is business partners and best friends with Tommy (Stephen Graham), who is in the slot machine business. When Turkish and Tommy's plans to fix a fight for bigwig Brick Top (Alan Ford) go horribly awry, thus begins a chain of chaos that links with a large stolen diamond.

This is but a short strand of the knotty yarn that is woven in Snatch, not to mention an even smaller sampling of the shady sons-of-bitches that populate Ritchie's grimy London underworld. In addition to the pig-farm-owning, dog-fight-loving Brick Top, there's hard-to-kill Russian badass Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia); Sol (Lennie James) and Vincent (Robbie Gee), pawnbrokers who, along with heavyset getaway driver Tyrone (Ade), make an inept robbery team; Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt), an Irish gypsy bare-knuckle brawler with an unintelligible accent; Doug "the Head" (Mike Reid), a gentile jeweler who pretends he's Jewish to benefit business; American crook Avi (Dennis Farina), who gets the ball rolling by hiring ace thief Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) to steal that big ol' diamond.

With such a large canvas of players--and there are more than a few others I haven't mentioned--it is indeed difficult at first to keep track of them, even after each one is stylishly introduced with a freeze-frame title card. What doesn't take so long, however, is getting caught up in these colorful characters and the swirl of events that sweep them together. Ritchie's stylized visuals do bear a show-offy sheen, but there's no denying the eye candy makes an effective initial hook.

And once hooked, it isn't so much Ritchie's consistently interesting visuals that keeps the audience interested than his clever, unpredictable, breakneck plotting and memorably off-center characters. He can't take full responsibility for the latter matter, though, for most of the credit must go to the actors. While Del Toro's Franky is another of his tiresome, trademark marble-mouths, Pitt makes shockingly good use of his character's verbal tic, the basis of many a good laugh. Ford, Farina, Ade, Gee, and James also make their mark without the benefit (or hindrance) of a funky accent. Providing a welcome center of calm amid all the quirkiness is the quietly captivating Statham.

With its considerable similarities in style and tone with Lock, Stock..., Snatch cannot be considered a real creative step forward for Ritchie; the film doesn't reveal anything especially new about his ability (except, perhaps, his effective direction of bigger-name actors). That said, I do think Snatch is a step up; while Ritchie essentially covers the same ground he did in that last film, here he does it with more confidence and panache. But given his obvious talent and potential as a filmmaker, here's hoping Ritchie doesn't trap himself in this scuzzy/funny crime milieu--t

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