It took a while, but the Hong Kong action movie has now almost completely circumnavigated the globe. The bullets-and-blood baths formula pioneered by John Woo and company in the late '80s and picked up by Quentin Tarantino in the United States earlier this decade has, like a seventh-generation Xerox, found its way to Europe. "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," already an inexplicably monstrous hit in its native England, arrives in America with a spray of gunfire and the kind of hype normally reserved for the release of a special prosecutor's report. Problem is, we've heard it all before, and usually with a slightly more comprehensible accent.
The plot concerns a raffish young quartet of ne'er-do-wells -- the type of lads for whom Rothmans and all-night chip shops were created -- who get mixed up with the Wrong Kind of People. Naively wagering half a million pounds in what turns out to be a crooked card game, the hapless pack suddenly finds itself eyeball deep in debt to Hatchet Harry, a local loan shark and smut peddler not above pummeling his enemies into oblivion with a big black dildo. Conveniently for the boys, however, they live in a thin-walled apartment right next to a sadistic drug lord planning his own big score -- a heist on the neighborhood collective of mincing, new age dope growers. If the boys can pull off a robbery of the robbers, their problems are solved. If not, people are going to start losing fingers. But on their way to that fat satchel full of cash, they cross paths with such nefarious types as a sports-addicted, Afrosheened kingpin; a bumbling pair of gun thieves; and an enterprising collections enforcer whose devotion to his young son is as strong as his resemblance to "The Addams Family's" Lurch.
As thefts pile up and casual beatings escalate into full-blown carnage, director Guy Ritchie frequently pulls back from the action to bask in his movie's own self-conscious style. Narration comes in and out, a cockney rhyming slang scene is subtitled, the film slows down, speeds up and flat-out pauses, all to the accompaniment of a funky James Brown beat. It's supposed to be visually exciting, but the result is more like a corpse-strewn Gap khakis ad than a triumph of technique. At least, based on the film's grainy texture and amber lighting, it's nice to know that the guy who shot every porn movie released in the '70s appears to be working again.
Making the horrible beautiful, even laughable, isn't new, and when done right, it can still be an exhilarating cinematic experience. The slo-mo death throes of Bonnie and Clyde trump Meg Ryan's bland "City of Angels" fatalism any day of the week. But while the Hong Kong genre built itself on tortured-yet-wry antiheroes and even "Pulp Fiction" offered a few likable (if highly strung) doofuses, "Lock, Stock" et al. suffers from a dearth of sympathetic or even memorable characters. The four alleged heroes are so blandly interchangeable it's impossible to care whether they survive their misadventures -- they're not so much clever or ruthless as either alternately lucky or unlucky. Only the brutal loan officer Big Chris (soccer star Vinnie Jones) has any measure of panache, his tender parental concern measured chillingly against his hulking fury.
Based on the success of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" abroad, the ultraviolent caper flick clearly still has legs. But when Pepsi ads are parodying "Reservoir Dogs," maybe it's time to consider that the form may be getting staler than O.J. Simpson jokes. It doesn't matter how many clever tricks Ritchie deploys or how many sex toys he uses, the basic premise, like one of Hatchet Harry's victims, has been beaten to death.