Little Rascals With Shotguns; Hard-Core Cage, Tortured Hero

Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels turns out to be as rollickingly funny as a barrel of mostly dead monkeys with a huge cast of males I know very vaguely or not at all. I emphasize the maleness of the production because out of 42 speaking parts there are only two females, Tanya (Vera Day), a middle-aged card dealer, and Gloria (Suzy Ratner), a zonked-out young hanger-on who doesn’t say much. The rest is mates, pals, buddies, baddies, racing along the East End of London in different alliances with enough firearms to keep the peace in Kosovo-and not just Saturday night specials, but vintage shotguns. The sociological stylization and jangling rhythms of the action lead to climaxes and Mexican stand-offs suggesting a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Quentin Tarantino.

Money is thrown around in such enormously large quantities-thousands of pounds here and thousands of pounds there-that even with the drug trade in the foreground everyone seems to be playing with Monopoly money. This is not like Trainspotting (1996) or The Full Monty (1997), movies with which Smoking Barrels has been linked in the advance buzz. Mr. Ritchie’s romp lacks the hallucinatory interiority of the former and the communal solidarity of the latter. All its MTV-like camera angles and editing ingenuity is applied to the pacing of the action, and the trivialization of the nihilistic violence.

Yet amid all the shameless trickery and exploitation, the movie is not without wit, charm and an indefinable panache. I was thoroughly entertained while I was watching it, and I haven’t hated myself since. And that is something, though I don’t know exactly what. I didn’t even mind not understanding most of the dialogue. Indeed, it might be better that way, though there is enough use of the F-word to express the generally angry and cynical state of mind among the universally criminal and quasi-criminal groupings of rascals.

The story centers around four grifters, Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), Eddy (Nick Moran) and Bacon (Jason Statham). You are made to root for them because they are driven to pull off a big heist only to get out of being mangled by crime boss Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty) and his fearsome henchman Barry the Baptist (the late Lenny McLean, to whom the film is dedicated). Do these sound like Damon Runyon characters? Well, sort of.

As I said at the outset, it’s the guys without the dolls, and by the end there are about a dozen corpses, and only a half-dozen survivors among the more conspicuous characters. Sting makes more than a token appearance as Eddy’s hard-nosed pub-owning paterfamilias, J.D. And Steven Mackintosh as the marijuana-growing Winston impressed me with his poignant expression of weary depravity. Ultimately, Mr. Ritchie and his collaborators have successfully conned me into thinking that they have done something worth doing.

Evil Under the Snuff

By contrast, Joel Shumacher’s loathsome Eight Millimeter , from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, doesn’t fool me for a moment with its pious prattle about the evils of snuff films and pornography in all its pernicious guises, except, that is, the pornography of self-righteous violence in which Eight Millimeter shamelessly wallows. Mr. Walker previously wrote the screenplay for the much admired (though not by me) Seven (1995). The theme is the same as in Eight Millimeter : Evil is contagious enough to infect those seeking to root it out, Brad Pitt’s police detective in Seven , and Nicolas Cage’s surveillance specialist Tom Welles in Eight Millimeter .

Mr. Cage has become such a wet-eyed purveyor of moral anguish that he makes Mr. Pitt look calm, cool and collected. Indeed, Tom Welles is a character drowning in soulful guilt for all the horrors of the world threatening his baby daughter in his family’s unpretentious frame house in Harrisburg, Pa. His job takes him away for weeks and months at a time from his mournful wife, Amy (Catherine Keener), who feels abandoned, and never more so than when Tom puts on his High Noon , a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do look as he prepares to dive into a cesspool of vice flowing from one sleazy coast to the other.

As long as the movie retains its private-eye aura of mystery, it moves along with narrative fluidity, but once the evil has been uncovered, the point seems to be to prolong the hero’s pain and torture by his reluctance on at least two occasions to use his gun in a painlessly efficient manner. Thus, the bad guys temporarily get the upper hand so that they can indulge all their sadistic passions. This I find more objectionable than the transparent hypocrisy of preaching against pornography while contemptuously displaying it, but with just enough restraint to avoid an NC-17 rating. As for the danger of evil’s contagion, it may apply to moviegoers as well as to surveillance specialists.

And Eight Millimeter is clearly an evil film.

The Post-Monica, Utter Banality of Blowjobs

Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions , from his own screenplay, based on the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, follows feebly in the footprints of Roger Vadim’s 1959 French treatment with Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau, Stephen Frears’ 1988 English-language version Dangerous Liaisons , with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman, followed almost immediately that same year by Milos Forman’s Prague-based English-language version, Valmont , with Colin Firth, Annette Bening, Meg Tilly and Fairuza Balk.

Curiously, the Vadim is much the weakest of the three, but Cruel Intentions makes Mr. Vadim look like Shakespeare, Sophocles, Molière and Chekhov rolled into one. Mr. Kumble has deliberately set out to transpose 18th-century Laclos into a 20th-century teenage toothless as well as clueless intrigue during an upscale high school’s summer break. Why not? The conventional wisdom in Hollywood presumes that teenagers make up the only audience that counts demographically. So you take Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose past credits include I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and cast her in the villainous Moreau-Close-Bening role while pretty boy Ryan Phillippe, Ms. Gellar’s co-star in I Know What You Did Last Summer , succeeds the previous Philipe-Malkovich-Firth Valmonts.

I could go on and on about the casting, acting, writing and directing absurdities of this enterprise, but what purpose would it serve? Anyone over 14 will find the proceedings excruciatingly silly, and surprisingly prudish, though the kids in the film talk dirty in post-Starr-Tripp-Lewinsky fashion, and sound cool about the utter banality of blowjobs.

Reese Witherspoon as a virginal deviation from the novel is the only performer who emerges with a shred of dignity and a semblance of competence. Louise Fletcher, Swoosie Kurtz and Christine Baranski are mercilessly mocked by the snickeringly spoiled, callow youth brigade around them. I hope these previously honored actresses got a decent paycheck for serving as high school dartboards. At this infantile level of appraisal, I suspect that Ms. Gellar and Mr. Phillippe may have a harder time next summer than last. But what do I know? I wrote off Tom Hanks after his first two gross-out movies.

Looking for a Date to Sundance

Myles Berkowitz’s 20 Dates could be written off as the writer-director’s bar mitzvah movie by a reviewer unkinder than yours truly. I would prefer to fault 20 Dates for the fallacy of the faux-naïf pseudo-Pirandellian pose already superfluous in the realm of Sundance and Slamdance cinema drowning in a sea of self-consciousness.

Having issued this disclaimer, and in the context of the horrors I have seen lately, I must confess that I managed to sit through the picture without fidgeting too much. We are asked to imagine that Mr. Berkowitz is a struggling filmmaker in Los Angeles trying to make a movie about his 20 different dates, on each of which he is hoping to find true love. Time and again, the young women are put off by the presence of a camera and sound boom. The endless varieties of polite rejection are amusing in a gruesome way for any viewer who has been trapped in a date from hell. But this sort of social Grand Guignol has been done to death in movies, sitcoms and stand-up routines. Besides, Mr. Berkowitz manages to make himself so clumsily obnoxious that he becomes a tired joke without an adequate punch line.

Guilt and Fear in Israel

Enough already. The 15th Annual Israel Film Festival, which is in the process of completing its program (Feb. 23 to March 11), has unveiled at least one film that would much improve the local film scene in general release. Shemi Zarhin’s Dangerous Acts makes me wonder anew why the large Jewish-American art-house audience in New York is not more enthusiastic about Israeli cinema. Is it a question of being too close historically, but too far away emotionally? As a non-Jewish art-house type, I find mysterious depths of guilt and fear in Dangerous Acts that I cannot fully fathom.

An actress named Zvia Israeli (Gila Almagor) is confronted at the door of her apartment by Israel (Moshe Ivgi), the man whose reckless driving caused Zvia to lose her husband and daughter three years before. Israel has just been released from prison, and has come to ask for forgiveness. (Does the odd nomenclature of the characters suggest an allegory about the Holocaust?) When Zvia refuses, Israel jumps off the roof, is apparently crippled, and Zvia takes him into her home to care for him. He becomes more ominously possessive and demanding, but Zvia still fails to heed her friends’ warnings until her own life is placed in jeopardy on the same stage where she is performing mediocre melodramas interspersed with song and dance interludes that comment on both the play and the real-life situation.

I am reminded somewhat of Saul Bellow’s The Victim . I also suspect that the filmmaker has touched a masochistic nerve in the Israeli populace. Yet, there is something implacably aggressive on both sides of the confrontation. Dangerous Acts suggests that something interesting is going on in the Israeli cinema, something that should interest both Jews and non-Jews more than it apparently does.