The alpha and omega of British gangster movies. The two could not be further apart in every way. Get Carter, from 1971, has a single protagonist, the structure of a revenge tragedy, an elegant, inexorable screenplay, gritty 70s realism, a palpable, Altmanesque sense of place, stunning, ferocious moments of brutality and ugliness, canny, closely-observed directing, and characters who are thinking, feeling human beings. Snatch has multiple protagonists, the structure of a screwball comedy, a ridiculously complicated screenplay bursting with incident and coincidence, flip 00s surrealism, action where even murder victims don't seem to suffer, restless, anything-for-a-gag direction and a cast of screwy cartoon characters.
I dearly love both of them. When I can understand the accents, anyway.
My movie-going life crossed paths with Michael Caine during his "I'll choose roles for the sunny locations" phase (beginning, I'd say, with The Swarm, continuing through Jaws: The Revenge and on to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This is Michael Caine during his "eminence for hire" era, and it's easy to forget what an impressive, cold-eyed, nasty, mean little fucker he could be. He's absolutely blood-chilling in Get Carter (and check him out in Mona Lisa as well, a dynamite script), a real cockney Samuel L. Jackson.
The script really helps. Everything is underplayed and unexplained. For the first half-hour, we're not even sure who Caine is and what he's doing. We know he's some kind of London lowlife and we know he's going to somebody's funeral, but it isn't until 25 minutes into the movie, when he suddenly picks up a fallen branch to knock a lookout man unconscious to we realize what kind of man we're dealing with. We learn that the funeral was for his brother and that he didn't die by accident, and we soon learn that Carter isn't going to take his brother's death in stride, and by the third act we almost feel sorry for the pornographers, gamblers and real-estate developers in his path, we cringe anticipating each savage remorseless, merciless encounter. We see him kick a car-door closed on a man's head, grab another man by the genitals, throw yet another man off a seven-story car park. We see him drown a drugged woman, stab a man repeatedly in the gut and club another to death with a shotgun. We also get to see him engage in explicit phone sex (a cinematic first, I believe) while his landlady sits mere feet away.
Not that Carter is happy with himself, mind you. A good deal of his rage is directed inward as he knows that he, himself, is at least partly responsible for the death of his brother. He's filled with turmoil and self-loathing and he plows through the underworld of Newcastle knowing that he's never going to get back to London, he's playing for keeps.
A lot of gangsters have passed into cinema history since Carter, but Snatch still manages to bristle with indelible portraits. The acting in Snatch is wonderful across the board, but two performances always stand out for me: Brad Pitt as the Irish traveler and Alan Ford as Brick Top, the gangster who feeds his enemies to his pigs. I've always enjoyed Pitt's work, but his performance here is, I believe, without precedent. He's game, lovable, fascinating and completely indecipherable, playing a character both utterly simple and yet utterly unknowable, and he positively inhabits the role, vanishes into it. It's no star turn and no goof, he's both playing the role straight and also performing it in the context of a comedy and you can't take your eyes off him. This and Fight Club are his two best performances.
(I first saw Snatch in Paris [with Urbaniak and our wives, if you must know]: between the heavily-accented English and the French subtitles, we could almost make out what the actual plot of the movie was.)
When Alan Ford's character first showed up, I first thought "Oh well, here's another mean gang boss, I've seen this character a hundred times," but Ford brings such a livid, seething intensity to the role that he's breathtaking. I found myself actually scared of what he was going to do next, since there seemed to be no limit to his rage. Maybe it helped that I'd never seen Alan Ford's work before (although he has a small role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and has apparently done a lot of British television), I had no casting reference to fall back on (you know, the way we feel that it's okay if Matt Damon kills someone in The Departed because we've seen him do it in The Talented Mr. Ripley but we freak when we see Henry Fonda kill someone in Once Upon a Time in the West because, damn it, he's Henry Fonda, he's not supposed to kill people!).
And, as different as the script for Snatch is from Get Carter's, I love the way the stories dovetail, I love tracing the plotlines from character to character and dive to dive, from madcap situation to madcap situation. If Richard Lester made gangster movies, they would probably be a lot like this. The scripts for this and two other Matthew Vaughn productions (Lock, Stock and Layer Cake) are, as far as I'm concerned, top-notch, intricate puzzle-boxes of narrative invention, Roman candles of collision and intrigue.