With British Barrels Blazing

The British crime comedy Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels starts off with such showy, hip, "Trainspotting"-indebted commotion--the camera whirling and stopping as if in the grip of Saint Vitus' dance--that it seems this movie will surely wear out both the viewer and its welcome very fast. But hang in there. Once you sort out the main characters--four cheeky East London schemers whose plan to make a killing in a poker game backfires disastrously--and once the plot kicks into action, it becomes clear that under the shameless MTV pyrotechnics lies a structure as intricately crafted as a Feydeau farce.

First-time writer-director Guy Ritchie has a giddy gift for storytelling. His quartet of con artists are out £500,000 to a dangerous porn king who threatens to remove their digits one by one. The lads' solution to their bleak predicament is to rip off their next-door neighbors--a gang of thugs who are themselves planning to rip off a cash-rich clutch of ganja-growing college kids. Everyone in this almost exclusively male milieu is up to no good, and as all their felonious plans go bloodily awry, the disasters pile up as fast as the corpses. But Ritchie, a clever man, knows just how much gore a comedy can tolerate, and how to calibrate the fine line between sadism and slapstick. Danny Boyle and Quentin Tarantino may have inspired the flashy, fashionably vicious style, but "Lock, Stock's" eager-to-please comic spirit goes back as far as the 1951 caper classic "The Lavender Hill Mob." That film whispered and this one shouts, but the twinkle in the eye isn't all that different.