Elmore Leonard’s novels were hip and ironic before that was even cool. Now that the rest of the world has caught up with him in the 90s, movies based on his books (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) are big… and movies not based on his books but coming off as if they could be (Analyze This, Grosse Pointe Blank) are all the rage. Leonard is starting to hold sway with filmmakers across the pond, too, as two recent films — one from England, the other from Ireland — demonstrate.
Elmore Leonard x (Trainspotting + The Full Monty)
A couple of, as the Brits say, likely lads are out to make some fast cash in a high-stakes card game. The setting is dingy, dirty London. Tom (Jason Flemyng) is the “entrepreneur,” selling on street corners stuff that, um, has fallen off the back of a truck. Bacon (Jason Statham) helps him out. Soap (Dexter Fletcher) is the squeaky clean one, proud of his lack of a criminal record. And Ed (Nick Moran) is a card sharp, their ace in the hole — he doesn’t even have to cheat to win. They pool their resources to raise the hundred grand that’ll get them into the card game, secure in the knowledge that they can’t lose, their investment sure to come back to them tenfold.
Naturally, they lose. But Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, written and directed by Guy Ritchie, has only gotten started when their cash gets blown. They up end owing half a mil to “Hatchet” Harry Lonsdale (P.H. Moriarty), the “porn king” who runs the game. They’ve got seven days to come up with the money before Harry turns the problem over to the guy who “takes care of the administrative side of things,” Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), so called for his preferred method of violence: drowning.
I worried at first that Barrels, with its sprawling cast of idiosyncratic characters and lots of showy camerawork, was going to end up all style and no substance. Happily, this was not to be so. Ritchie handles his convoluted plot and frenetic pacing with elan and sprinkles it all with liberal doses of black humor and lots of quotable dialogue. (One bad guy on guns: “Sawn-offs are out.” During a messy shootout, “Would everyone stop getting shot?”) It may take a tad too long for all the plot threads and personalities — including a band of sleepy-eyed pot dealers, the now-requisite scary black guy with an afro, a father/son enforcer team, a bungling pair of burglars, and bags of money, bags of drugs, and two antique rifles that get passed around like hot potatoes — to come together, but when they do, you find that the payoff is well worth the wait and even worth enduring the sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t gonna work at all.
In true Elmore Leonard fashion, Barrels‘ characters aren’t especially likable (the fun comes from wondering who’s gonna be left standing at the end, not in rooting for anyone in particular), but they are fascinating. Hatchet Harry’s desk is strewn with sex toys, which he uses to bash the occasional supplicant. Working for Harry are the aforementioned father and son, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) and Little Chris (Peter McNicholl). Little Chris looks to be only about eight or nine years old, and his father is very protective of him — he may take his son along on a visit to beat someone up, but he’ll remind his victim to mind his language in front of the kid. (Big Chris to his son, in another eminently quotable line: “Wrap the gun up, count the money, and put yer seatbelt on.”) And yet contrast the Chrises with the film’s other father/son team, the card player, Ed, and his father, J.D. (Sting) — these two are the putative good guys, yet when Harry’s people threaten to take J.D.’s bar as payment on the debt Ed and his friends ran up, J.D. lets his son know that he’s on his own, and not to expect any help from dad. The prize for most-changed character, though, goes to Soap. Without much of a criminal mentality, he likens a dangerous theft to “a bad day in Bosnia.” But as he warms to the idea of robbery as the answer to their problems, Soap, a chef by trade, becomes a big advocate of the use of knives over guns — knives are quieter, so they’re more likely to use them, he explains to his friends as he admires a huge carving knife. The uneasy looks his friends exchange suggest it’s not just the audience that’s starting to wonder about his sanity.
Don’t let the accents deter you — Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is great fun.
Out of Sight + Angela’s Ashes
D’ya know the first thing I thought of when I heard that automobile manufacturers were gonna start putting latches inside car trunks, because of all those stupid kids who locked themselves in? I thought, What are mobsters gonna do now? Will it be like airbags — will mob killers be able get a mechanic to disable the inside-trunk latch so they can still haul around live bodies in the boot? Or are they gonna have to stick to already dead ones?
I Went Down has lots of trunk-haulage scenes.
No good deed goes unpunished, Git Hynes (Peter McDonald) knows. First he gets sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, in order to keep his sickly dad out of jail. While he’s in clink, his friend Anto (David Wilmot) steals his girlfriend. But Git’s a nice guy, if maybe a little dumb — not only does he give their relationship his blessing, but just after he’s released from prison, he comes to Anto’s rescue, beating up the goon who’s about to beat up Anto. But again, no good deed… The goon, it transpires, works for Dublin mobster Tom French (Tony Doyle) — in fact, he’s French’s wife’s sister’s kid, and Git’s gonna have to make up for the goon’s broken nose by running a little errand for French.
Directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by playwright Conor McPherson (whose play The Weir just opened on Broadway to rave reviews), I Went Down is a lighthearted mob caper. French may look the typical gangster, with his dark suit and shirt and red tie, but his goons are unfailingly polite (“Would you fuck off, please? Thank you very much.”). Chapter placards alert us to upcoming events: “Some reconnaissance. A daring rescue!”; “A dirty deal and then a cleaner deal”; “A shootout and a chase with more shooting.” Breathnach and McPherson get a lot of comedic mileage out of a child’s ski mask, instructions on the handling of a gun, and lots of other criminal mischief.
The main occupant of car trunks here is Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey), an old acquaintance of French’s whom Git and Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson, from Braveheart), a reputedly wacked-out employee of French’s, have been sent to Cork City to retrieve. The Laurel and Hardy of the criminal class, Git and Bunny cock the job up at first, but once Grogan is in their hands, and on one of the rare occasions when they let him out of the trunk, they learn that French and Grogan have a long-standing grudge involving French’s wife (“Did you every make love to a gangster’s wife?” Grogan asks Git and Bunny. “You can’t really enjoy yourself.”), missing gangster Sonny Mulligan, and a couple of printing plates for American $20 bills. “We’re up to our bollocks in some old gangster fuckin’ row,” Bunny moans to Git.
A flashback to the start of Grogan and French’s feud, back in the 70s, is very Martin Scorsese, gritty and wild like something right outta Goodfellas, but the rest of I Went Down is amiable comic mayhem. Elmore Leonard would approve.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
viewed at a public multiplex screening
I Went Down
viewed at home on a small screen