I quite like Guy Ritchie’s movies, but for a long stretch in his career, he basically kept making the same film over and over again: a fast-moving crime caper in the English underworld involving a MacGuffin, colorful rogues with catchy street names, intertwined storylines that connect without trying to, heavy enforcers who take lots of punishment, and at least one scene in which somebody brings out a gun with way more firepower than what is called for.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch; Revolver; and Rocknrolla all follow this formula so closely that if you mashed them up a lot of people might not notice the difference. But that’s alright, because every time Ritchie goes back to this particular creative well, he produces something pretty familiar, sure, but always worth watching because his execution is just so fantastic. His crime movies are a triumph of style over substance for the most part, but man…what style it is.
Perhaps the apex of these movies is Snatch, a 2000 effort starring Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones and a bunch of other people inhabiting characters with names like Turkish, Brick Top, Bullet-Tooth Tony, Boris the Blade, Cousin Avi, and Frankie Four-Fingers. The dialogue is fast, furious and hilarious, employing a curious blend of dry British humor and the kind of frantic energy typically reserved for music videos. The story involves a stolen diamond, illegal boxing matches, a tea cozy with a hole in it, a crime lord who feeds people to pigs, an unstoppable Russian, an enforcer who can see if the gun you’re holding is a replica or not, idiot criminals who bring replica guns to dangerous situations, a fight promoter who has terrible luck buying caravans, and a bunch of Irish travelers who speak in such gobbledygook they ought to be subtitled. Somehow, all of this comes together, thanks in part to an errant carton of flying milk. It’s the kind of thing that makes no sense if you think about it too long, but within the internal logic of this movie’s world, it works. Somehow.
The thing that really sets this movie apart, though, is how it employs a million little particularities of low English culture in a way that almost forms a defensive screen against any viewer trying to fully understand everything that is going on. Snatch lets the audience in on the joke a bit with the character of Cousin Avi, a crooked jewel merchant from the States who is perpetually flummoxed by all of the unfamiliar culture around him. At one point, he says with no small exasperation that he’s in the country that invented English, but it sure doesn’t sound like anybody’s actually speaking it. Any Yank who’s been to England and ventured outside of London feels Avi’s pain. Eventually, Avi gives up and returns to the States. When asked at Customs if he has anything to declare, and he says, “Yeah. Don’t go to England.” Brilliant. Moment of truth, right there.
Where Snatch really scores is in its use of Brad Pitt as Mickey O’Neil, the head of the Irish travelers, speaking with an accent so intentionally garbled that it might as well have been invented from whole cloth. As much as Avi can’t understand the language and intentions of all the Brits around him, those same Brits cannot fathom Mickey. That there’s an American playing an Irishman who can’t be understood by Englishmen is no doubt some kind of joke Ritchie is playing on everybody, and I think that’s the point. Were Snatch just to feature Avi as the sole fish out of water, it would come off like British snobbery, but with Mickey in the mix, we see that in Ritchie’s England, everybody’s got somebody they cannot freaking understand. And like Avi, and Turkish, and Brick Top, and all the rest, we may think where we’re going. Truth is, we are all just a one wrong move from wandering into bandit county, especially if we are bandits ourselves.