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Guy Ritchie's Snatch shows larceny in motion

At this pop cultural moment, Guy Ritchie is no doubt less known to Americans as a hip English filmmaker than as the guy who finally made an honest woman out of Madonna. Tabloid readers and E! channel audiences curious about the day job of the Material Girl's groom will find a director who uses every trick in the book to capture every conceivable kind of criminality on-screen.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie's first film of small-time London heists and hitmen, set British box office records and inspired a bevy of imitators. His follow-up, Snatch, so resembles its predecessor as to seem the work of a crafty counterfeiter, but it provides bigger laughs and a broader canvas while still being more of the same.

Ritchie's films come across less like conventional stories than geometry experiments that set various bands of thick-accented hoodlums, henchmen and hijackers in motion and observing how often they crash into each other. Part of the fun is simply keeping track of the nicknames, like Snatch's Doug the Head, Sausage Charlie and Boris the Blade.

Snatch kicks off when Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) leads a gang dressed as Hassidic Jews to knock over an Antwerp jewel dealer. The prize is an 86-carat diamond about the size of a lemon, and part of the plot depicts the vying factions scrambling to steal the stone out of Franky's possession.

Two-bit boxing promoter Turkish (Jason Stethem) narrates Snatch's other major thread, in which he and mild-mannered sidekick Tommy (Stephen Graham) get in hot water with scabrous mobster Brick Top (Alan Ford), who feeds the bodies of his enemies to pigs. A simple dispute with a group of Irish gypsies, or "pikeys," turns complicated when gypsy boxer "One Punch Mickey" (Brad Pitt) unexpectedly puts Turkish's prized fighter into the hospital.

Turkish and Tommy convince Mickey to participate in a fixed fight, with no assurance that Mickey will do what he's told or that bet-placing Brick Top will spare their lives: "You show me how to control a wild gypsy and I'll show you how to control an unhinged pig-feeding gangster," Turkish remarks. The climactic boxing match seems to employ every camera trick Scorsese came up with for all two hours of Raging Bull.

Like Requiem for a Dream's Darren Aronofsky or Trainspotting's Danny Boyle, Ritchie is the kind of style junkie who treats cinema as a substitute for intoxicants or the visual equal of techno music. Snatch never stops, and whenever it gets a wild hair, it turns upside down, splits the screen, turns black-and-white or runs in reverse -- whichever method advances the plot as quickly as possible. Blink and you might miss a joke, like the way any time someone mentions Franky's gambling problem, we see a brief high-rolling montage of Viva Las Vegas.

When American crook Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina) decides to personally handle the situation in England, he crosses time zones in a handful of precise close-ups that take longer to explain than to see: A phone hangs up, a taxi light goes on, Farina gulps a pill in an airplane seat, the Concorde roars overhead, his passport gets stamped, and boom, he's kicking ass in London.

Crime films like Goodfellas and Miller's Crossing can offer metaphors for racial tension by pitting different ethnicities against each other. No serious intent can be discerned in Snatch, but London's criminal class comes across as an overheated melting pot of rival Russians, Jews, gypsies, cockneys and bad-boy yardies. The alpha male is bounty hunter Bullet Tooth Tony, played by former footballer (and Lock, Stock alumnus) Vinnie Jones, who seems to embody Ritchie's idea of soft-speaking, high-testosterone cool.

The cast must include England's entire population of hulking galoots, guys with faces like fists and fists like cinderblocks. Among this rogues gallery, Brad Pitt stands out, but not simply for having a parlor's worth of tattoos across his flesh. Playing against his own movie star status, Pitt speaks an Irish gypsy patois that proves deliberately and hilariously impenetrable, even though the vocabulary seems to be English. The pikeys may be the film's most flagrant swindlers, yet Mickey embodies a strange kind of innocence denied the city dwellers. Pitt proves the actor is his most appealing when he's the least ambitious, as in his scenes as the stoned roommate in True Romance.

One of the best running jokes has a dog that swallows a chew toy and squeaks for the rest of the film. The rest of the comedy mostly involves a kind of blood-drenched slapstick, involving machetes, hair-raising ricochets and thugs who don't seem to stay dead. But Snatch can turn icily serious, as when Ritchie cross-cuts between hounds chasing a hare and a likable getaway driver being captured by Brick Top's hired muscle.

Snatch feels richer than Lock, Stock, with a wider range of characters and somewhat deeper relationships. But neither film amounts to much, even lacking the themes of male bonding and betrayal of Reservoir Dogs and older film noir. It's a shame that a filmmaker with Ritchie's energy and eye offers such wild but trifling entertainments, with his latest proving no more than a triumph of Snatch over substance.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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