Material Guy

At last, a viable explanation for Madonna’s recently acquired Alistair Cooke accent. Perhaps it’s her current paramour, British-born indie auteur Guy Ritchie, who has been crisscrossing America for the past five weeks flogging his much-hyped new movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a baroque farce about gangsters on London’s East End. “This is a dream come true for me,” says the first-time writer-director, who went from directing low-rent German techno videos to getting a second feature greenlighted by Sony in less than a year. “I love this bloody country!”

Boyishly handsome, artfully tousled, and kept trim by a diet primarily comprised of shellfish and ale (“the warmer, the better”), Ritchie puts his age at 30 even though British papers insist he’s nine years older. As befits any chum of Madonna, he’s also proved adept at collecting column inches: In the past month, he’s been sighted mamboing with Miss M at Moomba, falling out of a limo an hour late for his L.A. premiere, and cavorting naked in the snow with friends at Sundance. “We had a hot tub at this very flash hotel, and you know, Englishmen aren’t used to hot tubs,” Ritchie explains with a high-pitched giggle. “So we all got in there, and someone came up with the stupid idea that whoever got into the snow would get $20. Before we knew it, everyone was in the snow, and no one got the $20.”

Ritchie and his clean-scrubbed, Gucci-clad brat-pack of modelish actors are the newest icons of “laddism,” a testosterone-infused celebration of working-class British culture best represented by the brawler ethos of Loaded magazine, Oasis, big-beat music, and soccer hooligans. “When boys get together in America, it’s a bit of a frat-boy thing,” says Ritchie. “Whereas in England, we’re all just together for a laugh, really.”

Severely dyslexic, Ritchie left school at 15 and worked at menial jobs like digging sewers for hotels on the Greek island Ios, then spent several frustrating years directing commercials before embarking on Lock, Stock. “I started the long process of lying in order to make the film,” says Ritchie. “Lying gets more films made than money.”

Beatings with a rubber dildo are just one of the indignities suffered by Lock, Stock’s quartet of put-upon heroes – loquacious, waify twentysomethings who get taken for half a million quid by seasoned thugs in a card game. Desperate to recoup the money, the liquored-up lads get mixed up with a bevy of crooks – including a pair of menacing creditors named Harry the Hatchet and Barry the Baptist. The film’s dialogue runs to lines like this one, delivered by a West Indian sporting a retro Afro: “If the milk turns out to be sour, I ain’t the type of pussy who will drink it.”

Adding a dose of street cred to the cast are a couple of real-life con men, including a former bare-knuckle-boxing champ and a heavy who was “discovered” at the Smithfield meat market. Notoriously pugilistic soccer player Vinnie Jones, who plays a vicious debt collector in the film, was jailed for assault on the first day of production – a case of life imitating art imitating life.

In any case, Ritchie’s hyperverbal street dilettantes seem better suited to post-Tarantino American independent movies than to fusty British crime capers like The Long Good Friday or The Italian Job. Just as Tarantino added surf music, ebonics, and California color to Chinese gangster plots, Ritchie has Anglicized Tarantino’s mid-nineties gestalt. Ritchie even subtitles one particularly slangy scene, giving viewers a hand with lines like “an Aristotle of the most ting-tong piddly in the pub” (a request for hard liquor). The movie’s sepia-toned underworld and incessant existential banter bear an uncanny resemblance to Tarantino’s 1992 hit Reservoir Dogs – still the height of chic in London, where it draws sellout audiences to midnight showings. Ritchie insists he has never watched the movie to conclusion.

Indeed, he has his own surprisingly conventional ideas about cinematic success. His dream for the future: “To make movies like Jerry Bruckheimer’s.” One of his biggest champions: Tom Cruise, who yelled “This movie rocks!” at an L.A. screening. His favorite movie of recent vintage: Meet Joe Black, which he praises as “wonderful. So American!”

What about that old-world British reserve, that soigné cool? The social miniatures of Mike Leigh, the passion plays of Neil Jordan, the phantasmagorias of Terry Gilliam? Bollocks! says Ritchie. “What British filmmakers do you respect? Only a handful of them that are any good at all, and none of them makes any money.”

Lock, Stock has benefited from an intercontinental feedback loop, wherein trumped-up reports of British-hit status (while more profitable than most domestic movies in England, the film actually opened to mixed reviews) fed U.S. ardor, which fed British buzz, and so on. “In Britain, none of those media geezers even know my name,” he complains. A long line of distributors, including Miramax, passed on the movie when Ritchie initially approached them (“People were saying it was absolute shit,” he admits), though the film’s soundtrack – a mix of James Brown, the Stone Roses, and Skanga – was immediately snapped up by Madonna’s Maverick label.

It wasn’t until Ritchie’s 27-year-old producer, Matthew Vaughn, approached his godfather, Hard Rock Cafe owner Peter Morton, that $1.6 million was raised to shoot the feature in the first place. Morton roped in additional funding from Steve Tisch (producer of Forrest Gump, Risky Business, and The Postman) and Trudie Styler (who convinced her husband, Sting, to consent to a cameo). “I had the best time of my life with these guys: drinking, carousing, just being boys,” says Tisch. “It didn’t stop when the camera stopped rolling. I love this ‘lad’ phenomenon.”

So, apparently, does Ritchie. “In London, we’re all killing ourselves working for nothing,” says the director, relaxing in a plush suite at the Four Seasons. Before Lock, Stock, he never earned more than £5,000 from any project. A lifetime of relative poverty has helped him reorder his priorities, he says: “All I care about is putting food on my table, bringing home the bacon. I admit it. I’m utterly bourgeois.”

Material Guy