With four-letter words and violence by the bucketload, Guy Ritchie’s gangster flick had everything a 12-year-old boy could want – and it still does
When I was 12, all that mattered was the certificate. That little coloured shape in the bottom corner of the video box was the be-all and end-all, and there was a rigid hierarchy: U-rated films were to be avoided at all costs, PG piqued little interest, 12 suggested there might be something in there worthy of attention: a bit of swearing, the odd moment of violence, maybe even a glimpse of flesh. The 15-rated films were where things got interesting. From my limited experience, that was a broad bracket that took in a whole new world of invective, some unnervingly moderate sex scenes and a decent amount of blood and gore.
But it was the 18-rated films that were the holy grail. That was where the really foul language flowed, where the sex got terrifyingly explicit and, crucially, where the real bloodletting went down. Even the certificate itself – white numbering against a background of deep, carnal red – carried its own exhilaratingly adult connotations. Human beings tend to want what they can’t have, and 12-year-old boys are no different: any film classified 18 was by definition a film I was desperate to see.
It goes without saying that I almost never got to. My parents being joyless authoritarians, catching an 18 film during my early teens required either treacherous fieldwork (buying a cinema ticket for one film, sneaking into another), meticulous domestic strategising (recording the 9pm film on Channel 5 in the knowledge that something slightly riper would be on straight after: a tactic that, due to the three-hour runtime of VHS tapes, resulted in a lot of half-recorded Shannon Tweed movies) or, most often, by engineering invitations to households with a more flexible view of BBFC guidelines than mine.
It was the latter tactic that got me to see my first 18-rated film in full, thanks to a new DVD player, bought by a mate’s dad, that had come with a stack of recently released films. Two of them carried the desired certificate: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – a British gangster flick starring Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones – and Crash, a slow-burn psychosexual drama about people who get erotic thrills from car accidents. We went for the gangster film.
It was pretty much everything we could have hoped for. Lock, Stock had four-letter words by the bucketload (more than 120 Fs in all, plus a generous handful of well-delivered Cs) and violence that was both consistent and imaginative: enacted with guns and knives, but also with tanning beds, garden tools, car doors, golfing paraphernalia and studded sex toys. We could have no complaints.
But just as gratifying as all that was the underlying sense of grownup-ness about the whole thing. Lock, Stock wasn’t just about people getting beaten with blunt instruments, it was about gambling, drinking, pubs, drugs and black-market aftershave. It was about nightclubs and boxing rings and poker tournaments. There was smart editing, breakneck dialogue and a suave soundtrack. This was, clearly, a work of serious maturity and sophistication.
Watching it back two decades later, Lock, Stock seems a slightly less refined piece of film-making than I thought. It’s 100 minutes of lairy psychopaths trying to rob, maim and kill each other – although the violence itself now seems disappointingly tame. The plot, which gives the impression of being complex and clever, is actually shapeless and confusing. The script is trying much too hard to be quotable and the cast are trying much too hard to sound like cockneys. They are also completely interchangeable, bar the odd bizarre cameo. (Rob Brydon shows up at one point. So does Danny John-Jules from Red Dwarf. So does Sting.)
Women are almost entirely absent from first frame to last; men communicate exclusively in threats, banter and threatening banter. No scene is too small for its own pulsating faux-vintage guitar riff, no character too minor for their own show-stopping introduction. It’s a coked-up monument to late-90s British hubris; it is to Tarantino what Oasis were to the Beatles.
And it’s still pretty great. As a piece of empty-headed entertainment (is there any better kind?) it’s a solid box-ticker, and as a cultural artefact it’s pretty much priceless. Maybe my taste wasn’t so bad after all. Only thing is, I had it wrong all along: it’s not a film for adults. It’s a film for 12-year-old boys