There is a moment in Guy Ritchie’s 2000 crime film Snatch that ends with a disheveled, bearded Brad Pitt, staring at a flaming caravan with a look of broken shock on his face. Maybe the most beautiful image Ritchie has ever captured, the moment serves as a somber an example of how Snatch can transcend visual gimmickry and outlandish dialogue to become something more. While engaging with elements of farce that create a level of detachment, Snatch succeeds where other Ritchie films fail by going beyond surface delight to create a feeling of honest affection for its characters.
Snatch is a story of graft and deception in the British criminal underground, following the intertwining exploits of gangsters, thieves, and boxers as they dodge bullets and quest for the ultimate score. With a jarringly deep ensemble, Snatch is headlined by Jason Statham and Stephen Graham as the struggling underground boxing promoters Turkish and Tommy, Alan Ford as the ruthlessly intimidating gangster Brick Top, Denis Farina as the bumbling American jeweler Cousin Avi, and Brad Pitt as the charismatic gypsy boxer Mickey.
Constantly interacting with crime genre conventions and Edgar Wright-esque visual comedy, Snatch stretches beyond its own confines, testing the limits of story structure and possibility. While Ritchie’s later films would be criticized as derivative or juvenile, Snatch rises above the pack with its masterful performance and visual innovation, making it Ritchie’s greatest film.
As Turkish, Statham may also be doing career best work, delivering something far different than the invincible hitmen characters that would later define his career in films like The Transporter, The Mechanic, or The Fast and The Furious franchise. Instead, Turkish is a more docile figure, constantly running up against his limitations, while struggling for survival in his cutthroat business. In his scenes with Tommy in particular, Statham walks a fine line between mocking intimidation and honest disorientation, always one step ahead of his associates and one stop behind his adversaries.
Turkish’s greatest adversary is, of course, diminutive crime boss Brick Top, masterfully played by Alan Ford. Whether he is describing to small time crooks how pigs dismember a corpse or mercilessly murdering henchmen, Ford hangs onto something comedic while never becoming parody. Through all of the hijinx and one liners, Ford manages to create genuine fear of violence and destruction.
Farina’s performance is, in some ways, the inverse of Ford’s controlling facade. As Snatch’s comedic heart, Farina pushes his character’s absurdity to the brink, acting as a perfectly American fish out of water. One of the most prolific character actors of his time, Farina’s commitment to Cousin Avi’s eccentricities adds a level of professionalism and delight to Snatch’s aesthetic, raising the comedic ability of every character around him.
Snatch’s premier performance and lasting cultural imprint, however, belongs to Brad Pitt’s incomprehensible performance as Mickey. Sporting one of the most bizarre accents in movie history, Pitt appears to be having the time of his life, weaving through gypsy campsites, chewing up the scenery, and knocking out every opponent with a single punch. Pitt’s incredible physicality owns the film, particularly in his boxing scenes, as he emits a ring presence of pure invincibility. Despite his limited screen time, Pitt still dominates the film’s place in the culture with one of the strangest and most inspired choices of his whole career.
But like all Guy Ritchie films, Snatch comes with its own flaws of story logic and underdeveloped female characters. Such complaints come with the territory in Ritchie’s early movies, before he transitioned into subpar franchise work with Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Alladin. Through Ritchie’s fixation on sight gags and violent machismo, his films have a tendency to lack the necessary heart required to deliver on their promise. Moments like Mickey’s emotional breakdown are noticeably absent in Ritchie’s other films, cheapening his characters and withdrawing an audience’s emotional investment in a story.
Yet, Snatch stands on its own as an inventive achievement. Working with peak control, Ritchie can turn moments like routine car chases into chronology bending exercises in hilarity, at the drop of a hat. At his best, Ritchie has always been able to electrify audiences with spectacle even when the substance comes up short. In the case of Snatch, the trick works because a viewer can sense Ritchie’s true affection for his characters and his sense of their hubris and ridiculousness.
With The Gentlemen premiering this week, Ritchie appears to be taking a break from his big tentpole franchise work to return to his British crime roots. Whether The Gentlemen works or not, only time will tell, but viewers can know one thing for certain: they will be entertained.