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Grade: D-

One of the obnoxious characters (or more properly, crude stick-figures) in Guy Ritchie’s appropriately sophomoric second feature–a vicious thug charmingly nicknamed Bullet Tooth Tony–remarks midway through the picture on the predictability of stupidity. The picture proves him only partially correct. “Snatch” is certainly stupid–as well as ugly and, more often than not, incomprehensible–but, like most bad heist movies, it’s not predictable in the sense that a viewer can always tell what’s going to happen next. Instead, in its self-conscious effort to seem clever, the movie is all narrative convolution and jagged technique, deliberately devised to make it difficult to follow. The writer-director’s apparent hope is that viewers will find the work of deciphering it pleasurable. But he doesn’t succeed in this ambition, because his picture ispredictable in the sense that after enduring its grossness, whiplash editing and ear-splitting soundtrack for a half-hour or so, one arrives at a morose certainty that whatever twists the story might take, the result is going to be a flashy but shrill and monotonous bore. A frantic but curiously tired recycling of Ritchie’s overpraised but sporadically amusing debut feature “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), “Snatch” is nothing more than an orgy of macho posturing and cheap film-school tricks masquerading as style, a supposedly comic dance of violence and gore that repulses rather than entertains. It’s the visual equivalent of somebody jabbing you in the ribs with his elbow every few seconds to point out how clever he’s being; you emerge from the experience feeling as battered and bruised as most of the figures you’ve been watching onscreen.

The central event in “Snatch” is the theft of a huge diamond by a quirky crook named Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), working on behalf of his New York-based boss Avi (Dennis Farina). Passing through London with the gem, he’s seduced by Russian mobster Boris The Blade (Rade Sherbedgia) to put down a bet on a boxing match, but Boris has actually hired inept pawnshop owners Vinny (Robbie Gee) and Sol (Lennie James) to waylay him and steal the stone. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and before long Avi has flown to England and engaged Bullet Tooth (Vinnie Jones) to track down Franky and the diamond. Meanwhile, small- time hustlers Turkish (Jason Stratham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) get into trouble with brutal local boss Brick Top (Alan Ford) when the boxer they’ve promised for one of his illegal bouts is incapacitated in a brawl with Irish gypsy layabout Mickey O’Neil (Brad Pitt), and to save their skins the boys persuade Mickey to take a dive in the rigged match–with equally dire results, since the guy proves both uncontrollable and invincible. Needless to say, the two plot lines get interlinked along the way, and there are scads of scams, double-crosses, bursts of violence, and arch confrontations before everything works itself out, with lots of broken glass and bloodied bodies littering the landscape before it’s all over.

If handled with some finesse and charm, this sort of roguish caper scenario can go down nicely, however implausible it might be. (“The Sting” remains an obvious example.) But “Snatch” boasts neither. The characters are all so loathsome that one couldn’t care less when they get whacked, usually as abruptly and gruesomely as possible (unfortunately, they have a tendency to come back like insistent vampires when you thought you were rid of them for good), and what passes for conversation is such patently phony gangsterese that eventually you cease to listen. Scenes of raunchy comedy alternate with sequences rank with nonchalant sadism. And the whole unsavory brew is pushed into our faces by a directorial style which mistakes empty pizzazz for cinematic invention.

The cast hardly distinguishes itself in such a slummy environment. Most attention will certainly be on Pitt, who has to be congratulated for taking a role in a comparatively modest project but not for the result. The erstwhile glamor boy puts on seedy airs here, but his performance is no less a failed stunt than was his undeservedly praised turn in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 “Twelve Monkeys.” He delivers all of his lines in an accent so deliberately thick and peculiar that it’s a running gag that nobody, apart from his closest mates, can understand him; but that’s a joke that wears thin fast. (Given the dismal dialogue overall, it might have helped if this affliction had been extended to the other characters too, but, alas, such is not the case.) More notably, Pitt spends so much of his screen time being viciously pummeled by opponents in the ring that, especially when one recalls that his last role–in “Fight Club”–required similar degradation, you can’t help but wonder whether the actor hasn’t developed a decidedly masochistic bent. Del Toro overdoes the accent, too, but since his is basically a cameo role, he’s not quite so annoying; Farina shrieks and froths so incessantly that the only surprising thing about his performance is that he didn’t burst a blood vessel completing it. Ritchie’s choice of local talent isn’t much more successful. Statham, Jones and Flemyng (all holdovers from “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) spit out their lines with the requisite bite, but they don’t show much charisma, while Ford snarls ineffectually as the bloodthirsty villain. None of the lesser players make much of an impression, but one curious fact should be noted: women prove entirely peripheral to the writer-director’s world. The only female characters on view here are Mickey’s long-suffering ma (Sorcha Cusack), a couple of leather-clad dolls (Nicki and Teena Collins), a doltish betting-window clerk, and assorted trophy dates. There’s also a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism throughout. If all this is really reflective of Ritchie’s mindset, his new wife Madonna had better begin mulling a quick annulment.

Viewers who were taken by the grim humor and overwrought visual fireworks of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” may be inclined to greet this second helping of much the same dish with enthusiasm, but I suspect that even most of them will find it overly familiar, a kind of desperate directorial rerun. Those who come to “Snatch” unaware of Ritchie’s earlier picture, perhaps attracted by Pitt’s presence, will probably be appalled. The latter’s the more appropriate response to a movie that’s really nothing more than an empty, pointless, and entirely too nasty exercise in farcical mayhem.


When a major studio decides to release a film with a starry cast and a distinguished pedigree in the doldrums of January and February, without benefit of even a limited December showing in New York and Los Angeles to allow for Oscar consideration, it’s obvious that the executives have serious reservations about its viability. Often, of course, the suits are right–the post-holiday period isn’t known as a cinematic graveyard for nothing. But sometimes they’re completely wrong. Last year, Warner Brothers, for some reason, held “Wonder Boys” back until late February, when they might have gotten strong buzz going with a December opening. And now the same studio has dumped Sean Penn’s third directorial effort, a Jack Nicholson vehicle no less, into a January 19 slot that practically begs audiences to ignore it. And that’s a shame, because while the bleak, brooding tone of “The Pledge” certainly won’t attract viewers looking for lighthearted fare to take their minds off terrible winter weather, it’s an outstanding film, easily the most accomplished thing Penn has yet done behind the camera, and it boasts Nicholson’s most subtle, nuanced performance in years.

What gives the picture a distinct advantage over Penn’s previous exercises–1991’s “The Indian Runner” and 1995’s “The Crossing Guard”–is that it’s based not upon a script written by the helmer himself, but on a marvelous short novel, “Der Versprechen,” by the late Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt. Durrenmatt will perhaps be best known to filmgoers as the author of a play, “The Visit,” which was made into an unfortunately mediocre movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in 1964; but he was in fact a remarkable writer, whose work concerned itself regularly–and often brilliantly–with the elusive, ambiguous character of justice. That notion–that the search for accountability in human affairs is often is often fallible and inconclusive–is the theme of the book which Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski have adapted (with astonishing fidelity, despite the modernization and Americanization) for their screenplay, and they’ve managed in large measure to retain the depth and shading of the original. This affords Penn a solid structure to work from which his own earlier scripts lacked–with the result that while he again achieves a striking sense of dread and foreboding, as he did in both his previous films, in this instance it’s joined with a narrative that’s both tight and thought-provoking.

The story is actually quite simple, focusing on recently-retired Reno police detective Jerry Black (Nicholson), who becomes obsessed with tracking down a young girl’s killer–something he’d promised the victim’s mother he would do–despite the fact that the cops are convinced they’ve already gotten the man (an Indian who committed suicide shortly after confessing) and closed the case. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal how the plot progresses from this premise, except to say that it goes in directions you probably won’t anticipate; it can also be noted that Black in many ways resembles Scottie Ferguson, the tormented protagonist of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and that the final act of “The Pledge” has something in common with Scottie’s determination to remake his lost love, with equally devastating results.

Nicholson plunges into the lead role using his usual bag of tricks, but Penn exhibits his directorial finesse by getting the star, who has too often resorted to outrageous mugging of late, to add a commendable dose of restraint to the mix here. Penn also coaxes wonderfully natural turns from his wife Robin Wright Penn as a waitress with whom Black gets involved, Sam Shepard as his old boss (who’s the narrator in the book but much less central here) and Aaron Eckhart as his replacement. But perhaps the director’s greatest feat lies in securing superb short turns from a variety of performers in what amount to a series of cameos. Usually when a well-known face pops up for a minute or so, a viewer can’t get past the celebrity–the hilarious assault on the practice that Dwight MacDonald launched in his notorious 1965 review of George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” all too often proves dead-on. But here actors like Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton and Helen Mirren manage immediately to inhabit their brief roles so well that they barely intrude on the gritty, but still dreamlike, atmosphere that Penn has taken great pains to establish. (Okay, so Redgrave might remind you a bit too much of Ingrid Bergman in “Murder on the Orient Express,” but that’s the only weakness.) Probably the best proof of Penn’s skill in using such names is that Mickey Rourke, in about thirty seconds as a bereaved father (and quite a few of those from behind) does his finest, most affecting work in years. The contributions of all the actors, along with the delicate work of cinematographer Chris Menges and the fluid editing of Jay Cassidy, help to keep the picture engrossing throughout.

This isn’t the first time, incidentally, that Durrenmatt’s book has been filmed. I can’t speak about a 1994 version titled “In the Cold Light of Day” (and starring Richard E. Grant), since I’ve not been able to see it. But the little-known “Es Geschah im hellichten Tag” (1958), directed by Ladislas Vajda and starring Heinz Ruhmann (with the pre-Bond Gert Frobe in a brief but pivotal role), which was briefly released in the U.S. under the title “It Happened in Broad Daylight,” was so haunting that it lingers in the memory of those few who saw it even after forty years. (Curiously, though the novelist himself had a hand in its screenplay, it took far more liberties with the book than the present version does.) “The Pledge” doesn’t quite match it, in part because stories involving child homicide have become much more prevalent on the big and small screens in the intervening years, diluting the impact, but also because Penn still occasionally indulges in insistently arty moves (overhead camera angles, long shots of flying birds, overlapping “memory” montages) that impede the narrative flow like little cinematic stumbles. But together with his cast and collaborators, he’s fashioned a moody, satisfyingly oblique tale that reaches a truly shattering conclusion. The grim, hallucinatory quality he’s achieved calls to mind those twin recent masterpieces of desolation, David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” (1988) and Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), and while “The Pledge” isn’t quite their equal, the fact that it’s worthy to be mentioned in their company is accomplishment enough. It represents the rare instance in which a brilliant book has been turned into a superb film not once, but twice.