Ganging Up


From the original Scarface to Superfly to Reservoir Dogs, the urban gangster film has thrived on a combination of violence, attitude, and masculine style. The mobster is a fashion plate with pow and the disjunction between brute and dandy can approach self-parody. Perhaps this is why, almost since the beginning, the genre has lived a shadow life as a source of hard-boiled comedy.

Three films opening Friday try to have it both ways— reveling in cool while going for yuks, staging elaborate pratfalls amid a mounting body count. The most self-consciously hip of the trio, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, has been hyped as the hottest British crime film since the wildly overpraised Trainspotting upchucked onto the local multiplex scene three summers ago. This debut feature by 30-year-old music-video director Guy Ritchie pillages Trainspotting but it’s a fizzier, less-overweening action cartoon— without the slightest pretense toward strung-out realism.

Positioning itself as “fun” with a playful panoply of freeze-frames, fast-motion bits, and droll voiceovers (albeit waiting too long for the laughs to roll in), Lock, Stock sets up shop at the intersection of several simultaneous criminal capers. The parallels are clever; Ritchie appears to have graphed the action as much as written it. Having gone wildly into debt in a crooked card game with the local porn king, a vaguely likable quartet of youngish East End hustlers attempt to recoup their losses by robbing a more professional criminal gang.

This second outfit, more villainous for being led by a hard-bitten fish-and-chips de Sade, are themselves planning to rip off a twittering gaggle of upper-class, postgrad dope dealers. Thus establishing a modicum of sympathy for its otherwise forgettable East End antiheroes, the caper doubles back on itself as an intricate three-gang gavotte, with several rugged individualists in subplot orbit— one of them, a fearsome enforcer (played by soccer star Vinnie Jones), collecting debts with his 10-year-old son in tow.

The lad is key to the movie’s sensibility. Ritchie’s principals are a colorful, highly verbal lot and masters of schoolyard one-upmanship: “A minute ago this was the safest job in the world— now it’s turning into a bad day in Bosnia.” Its humor largely based on chirp and cheek, this is a very British comedy. Nearly all the players have some sort of Goon Show accent and, as in Reservoir Dogs, virtually every one of them is male. Ritchie’s precursor as a hyperkinetic, gag-driven director, however, is less mad Quentin Tarantino than mod Richard Lester (whose retro conveniently begins this weekend at AMMI). Given its boundless sarcasm, running-jumping- standing-still ambience and hyperbolic Guignol violence, Lock, Stock aspires to be something like the Beatles meet the Wild Bunch. Too bad it doesn’t have even a rubber soul.

With everyone getting mixed up in one another’s business, the laborious table-setting does eventually draw blood— in buckets. The final doom-show convergence is a cross-cut lock-and-load scored to the theme from
Zorba the Greek. (Here, as elsewhere, the lively audio track insures that the movie sounds better than it looks.) “It’s been emotional” is the punch line. The joke, of course, is that it hasn’t.

Somewhat overoptimistic in its title, Harold Ramis’s Analyze This is enjoyable but slight— an intermittently funny, one-joke vaudeville in which Robert De Niro’s mafioso, seeking to cure the crying jags and panic attacks he suffers after narrowly avoiding a hit, goes into therapy with Billy Crystal’s bemused psychoanalyst.

Two comic stereotypes, two modes of ethnic discourse: Mugging outrageously, De Niro tap-dances through the film, replaying his Untouchables Al Capone for laughs; Crystal, meanwhile, strokes his beard and brays, oscillating between quick wit and craven intimidation, storing up energy for the final switcheroo. The narrative is simple: Whenever the wiseguy has a problem, he hijacks the shrink. Shamelessly referencing The Godfather and cribbing from old Woody Allen, Analyze This might have seemed edgier 20 years ago. (Indeed, the idea of a mobster in analysis is central to HBO’s current The Sopranos.) Still, however familiar, the gag does lend itself to amusing elaboration. Crystal introduces De Niro to the notion of the Oedipus complex and subsequently hears him complain that “after what you told me, I’m afraid to call my mother on the phone.”

By making Crystal the son of a bestselling psychobabbler and the father of an overweight problem child, as well as introducing Lisa Kudrow in the Diane Keaton role as Crystal’s neurotic WASP fiancée, Analyze This suggests a richer milieu than it delivers. Focusing so intently on the bonding potential of the two principal characters (as well as their attempts to heal their wounded inner children), the movie squanders its chances to be much more than the Odd Couple with guns.

Ultimately a therapeutic success story, Analyze This is closer to City Slickers than it is Groundhog Day. Whether or not this represents the triumph of the innocuously positivist Crystal weltanschauung over Ramis’s somewhat more cynical one, it subsumes all manner of promising developments into the spectacle of the two stars muscling in on the action and doing their thing.

If not quite the synthesis of Lock, Stock and Analyze This, Six Ways to Sunday is nevertheless a post-MTV Freudian gangster comedy. Produced and directed by music-vid vet Adam Bernstein, this well-heeled indie starts with a blowsy Deborah Harry giving her 18-year-old son Harold
(Prada model Norman Reedus) a sponge bath and proceeds to work out his Oedipal scenario in explicit detail.

Set in Dean Martin’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, Six Ways engages in another form of displacement by treating this rundown rust-belt city as the realm of unreconstructed 1930s-style Jewish gangsters. Those Yiddish songbirds, the Barry Sisters, are warbling on the soundtrack and, as aspiring enforcer Harold soon discovers, the Jews allow no liquor in their office. “We like coffee here,” the big boss (Jerry Adler) explains. Harold soon becomes the goy in the shvitz, beating up deadbeats while absorbing the local wisdom. “Having money and not flashing it is strictly for gentiles.”

As the dialogue suggests, Six Ways to Sunday is not a particularly subtle film. In fact, it’s crassly cut and often clumsily staged. Bernstein has a near-fatal fondness for gross close-ups and broad performances. Although the flavorsome, oddball cast includes Elina Lowensöhn (as Harold’s deceptively timorous love interest), Adrien Brody (as his overly “yo” buddy), and Isaac Hayes (as a cop nemesis), the movie mainly feasts on the spectacle of beefy tough guys pulling faces and rolling their eyes.

Still, in true gangster fashion, Bernstein does imbue the project with an aggressively stylish look and gives it a nitwit savoir faire— a flashback to the ’70s with Harry singing “More, More, More.” Six Ways is also true to its psychosexual underpinnings. Harold takes orders from his surrogate father and his real mother until. . . . The least one can say for the final crack-up is that (unlike Analyze This) it’s less shtick than what used to be called sick.