Friday, January 21, 2011
Snatch is one of those ensemble movies where a dozen or more characters have intersecting plot lines that twist and turn all over the place, so summarizing the plot is perhaps not the best way to describe this movie. There are only two constants in this plot. First, New York gangster Avi (Dennis Farina) wants to get his hands on the diamond he hired Frankie Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro) to steal from Antwerp, but he's not the only one who knows that the jewel is in Frankie's possession. Second, local crime lord Brick Top (Alan Ford) needs competition for his illegal (and known to be crooked) underground boxing matches; he sets his sights on an honest local manager, Turkish (Jason Statham), who needs to deliver a good fight for Brick Top, or quite possibly die a gruesome death. Everything else feeds into those two seemingly separate plots.
While that actually sums up the plot decently well, I can't review Snatch and not mention the myriad colorful characters sprinkled throughout. While I wouldn't say that any of these characters are well-developed or sympathetic, most of them are entertaining. The highlight of the film definitely comes from the "fookin' pikeys," which is a rude British term for Irish Travelers (you know...gypsies); Mickey (Brad Pitt) leads the group of dirty, swindling, and heavy-drinking gamblers, with Jason Flemyng playing his number two. The pikeys are almost impossible to understand, which adds to their unwashed charm.
The next best characters are probably the duo of Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones) and Boris the Blade, AKA Boris the Bullet Dodger (Rade Serbedzija); both are notoriously hard to kill, both are pretty bad-ass, and they each have several memorable moments in the movie. Beyond them, there is an assortment of lesser characters, like the group of inept criminals hired to rob Frankie Four Fingers (including Robbie Gee and Lennie James), Turkish's partner Tommy (Stephen Graham) and a snitch (Ewen Bremner).
While it is billed as a crime picture, this is really more of a comedy than anything else. Sure, there's some action, but it is not the focus; the initial diamond heist took about two minutes of film time and even the final boxing match is only about five minutes long. The characters flash across the screen quickly, as does the plot, with everything slowing down only for jokes. Unfortunately, many of those jokes aren't very good. Well, to be fair, they're not real jokes; they're regular dialogue that is supposed to stick out and be funny. Sometimes, this works out great. Anything with Brad Pitt speaking is great. Most of Vinnie Jones' lines are good, especially his explanation for how Boris the Bullet Dodger got his nickname. Dennis Farina was also very entertaining whenever he got to be overly rude. But for every great moment, there is at least one joke that truly fails. They fall into a category that I like to call "repeater jokes." You have one character saying the same thing (maybe with slight variations) several times, with other characters reacting to it with increasing exasperation; you can inverse the gag, but it's even worse. Here's an example: Jason Statham asks a guy when the sausages will be done cooking, he is told two minutes; he asks again, and is told two minutes; he asks again and is told five minutes; Jason, frustrated, explains that it was two minutes five minutes ago. If you're not on the floor with tears in your eyes after reading that, then you agree with me: not funny, guys. I also found the inept criminals annoying, too, but the repeater jokes are just awful. They're not funny and they slow the flow of an otherwise fast-paced film.
This was the second film Guy Ritchie directed, and he throws everything he has at the screen. Slow motion, freeze frames, fast motion, a weird underwater effect, all while moving the camera all over the place. It makes for a pretty kinetic movie, even when not much is going on, plot-wise. You can justly critique his style as resembling Attention Deficit Disorder, but as long as the plot is chugging along, his style fits the film. I'm not quite sure about Ritchie and his handling of actors, though. He is probably a fun guy to be around, judging from all the actors that recur in his films, but he doesn't have much sense for timing anything but action, as we see when he slows down to tell unfunny jokes.
The acting is mostly entertaining, although nobody is really great in their part. Brad Pitt is the film's shining performance, managing to be very likable despite being greasy, bearded, and speaking gibberish. Aside from Pitt, I particularly enjoyed Vinnie Jones, Dennis Farina, and Rade Serbedzija; all of them played well within their comfort zones (criminals), but they were all darned good at it. I'm not terribly familiar with Alan Ford, but I've liked him quite a bit in both of his Guy Ritchie movies, even if a large part of that like comes solely from his vulgar dialogue. Oh, and Benicio del Toro was good is his bit role, but I was disappointed by just how small his part ended up being. I was surprised to see Jason Statham play such an inconsequential part of the story; despite narrating the film, his character doesn't really do much to propel the plot. In retrospect, it is also shocking that he doesn't fight a single person in this, his big American film debut, and he even manages to keep his shirt on for the whole movie.
So far, I think I can justly sum up Snatch as being a fast-paced crime caper with a focus on humor and eccentric characters. It's not a deep film, but it's fun, even when it sabotages its momentum with repeater jokes. On its own merits, this is kind of like the movie equivalent of junk food; it is enjoyable, but ultimately full of empty calories. When you take a broader look at this film, though, you will see striking similarities to Ritchie's first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I'm not talking about having Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, and Alan Ford in both movies, Matthew Vaughn as a producer, or even the fact that John Murphy did the score for both films. The look and feel of both movies is nearly identical. The way things end in both films is pretty similar, too. Even the basic premise of a slightly crooked, but good, guy getting in over his head with a violent gangster is repeated. Heck, Vinnie Jones' first scenes in both movies are barely distinguishable. Snatch feels like an attempt to recreate Ritchie's breakthrough picture, but with Hollywood actors. As such, most people like whichever movie they saw first, which is a shame; Snatch is funnier, but less consistent and less focused.
Having gotten that off my chest, I must admit that I still enjoy Snatch. Yes, it's basically a repeat of a movie I really like. Yes, it is all over the place, in terms of plot and characters. No, I don't really care about any of the characters as anything other than props for action and foul-mouthed jokes. But it is a damned good time, and it makes me laugh every time.