Both Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and True Romance (1993) end in flamboyant, modern deus ex machinas. By “modern” I mean that there’s no god cranked down on a wince. Instead, salvation is attained through the entirely materialist force of dumb luck, also known as the scriptwriters finger on the scales. In Lock, Stock, director Guy Ritchie’s four bumbling lads stumble into wealth when about a billion other tougher, badder, smarter armed factions all happen to conveniently shoot each other, leaving our heroes as the only ones standing. In True Romance, director Tony Scott and writer Quentin Tarantino’s bumbling couple stumble into wealth when about a billion other tougher, badder, smarter armed factions all happen to conveniently shoot each other, leaving our heroes as the only ones standing.

In both films, the unlikely denoument is intended to be a tour de force; you’re supposed to admire the intricate mechanism of the plot just as, perhaps, the ancient Greeks admired that intricate mechanism which dropped the God onto the proscenium. And by that measure, at least, both films succeed; their narratives are energetically and pleasingly tangled. A plethora of bit characters — Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance, Vinnie Jones and Lenny McLean in Lock, Stock — roll about amidst the strands like profane kittens ingratiatingly farting. It’s maybe a little too cute, but overall not a bad way to kill a couple of hours.

In both films, though, one thing rankled. I was meant to like these people. As a viewer, I’m supposed to be rooting that Guy Ritchie’s four bozos don’t have their fingers chopped off, and that Sting (playing a sympathetically tough working-class dad to one of said four bozos) doesn’t lose his sympathetically tough working-class bar. I’m supposed to cheer because Christian Slater’s movie-star-tough-guy dreams all more or less come true rather than ending in a hail of bullets and a pool of his own blood. Plus he gets to bang Patricia Arquette for all eternity, or thereabouts. Yay!

Unfortunately, there’s been a slight miscalculation — that being that there’s nothing remotely likable about any of these characters. Guy Ritchie tries rather desperately to distinguish his four young boneheads one from the other or, indeed, from anyone, by giving hiply incongruous voice over tidbits about each one. It’s nice to see him try, but the main effect is not to make you like the characters, but rather to make you wonder why the so enthusiastically declaimed personality quirks don’t actually figure into the film anywhere else. For example, Eddie (is his name Eddie? oh, who the fuck cares) is supposed to be incredibly good at reading people — but he never reads anyone that I can tell. He just pals around with his pals and fucks up and gets into trouble and then gets out by screwing other people over and then gets really drunk, which is supposed to be endearing. He’s not even an irritating loser; he’s a hollow trope posing as an irritating loser.

Christian Slater (is his name Vince in the film? again, I refuse to care) is a bit more complicated. He’s a comic store clerk and an exploitation film freak — he tries to pick up a girl by asking her to a Sonny Chiba marathon; on his first date with Arquette (Alabama; I remember her name) he reads to her from some Spider-Man comics. He’s a nerd and a geek; eccentric and kind of sweet.

Supposedly. I think it may have worked in Tarantino’s original script. However, thanks to the direction by Tony Scott and a flat, unmotivated performance by Slater, the geek eccentricity never coheres. Instead, Slater quickly moves from loving fictional violent heroics to engaging in successful violent heroics himself — shooting pimps, stealing cocaine, screwing a movie star, and generally behaving like a movie star himself. Tarantino’s writing undercuts the heroism — Slater leaves his driver’s license at the scene where he killed the pimp, and his stupidity causes the death of his own father. But Scott and Slater are too dense to hear what Tarantino’s telling them; neither Slater nor the film ever realize that what’s interesting about Vince (or whoever) is not that he’s the star of the film, but that he isn’t.

For Tarantino, I think, Slater’s a fuck-up trying to be the hero he’s seen on film and failing. That’s a sympathetic and interesting character…and you’d have cared when he died, as he did in Tarantino’s original script. But the Slater we get instead is just another tough guy whose mistakes are never brought home to him, both in the sense that he doesn’t ever get to integrate them into his character and in the sense that he doesn’t suffer from them. Patricia Arquette is a more charismatic actor by far, and she is able to capture more of the vulnerability in Tarantino’s script even as she beats a mafia boss to death. But the happy ending, and the general drift of the direction, undoes her as well — her individuality is crafted in the teeth of the rest of the film, and the storybook happy ending cheerfully undoes her efforts, turning her into the beneficiary/victim of yet another Hollywood romance.

The protagonists in both these films, then, are heroes not because of anything they do or anything they are, but just because they’re there. They’re the young white guys on the marquee; God (or the director) loves them, and the world is organized for their benefit. There’s a depressing verity to that; the world really is in many ways organized for the benefit of young, stupid, boring white guys, especially if they’re attractive movie stars. But having that driven home in as gratuitous a fashion as possible is not quite the happy ending that the directors seem to think it should be.
I was thinking about these films in relation to the new Green Lantern movie — which I blissfully haven’t seen, though I’ve read Jog’s review, which is undoubtedly more entertaining as well as more informative. Anyway…I was thinking that a superhero’s real power isn’t super strength or super speed or a magic wishing ring, but unearned luck courtesy of some overinvested creator. In Lock, Stock and True Romance, the luck is backloaded; it comes in at the end after lots of plot manipulation. In superhero stories, it’s frontloaded — being bitten by a radioactive spider gives you amazing strength rather than cancer; having a shelf-full of chemicals fall on you gives you superspeed rather than chemical burns; you’re chosen out of everyone on earth because you’re a showboating dipshit, etc. etc. But backloaded or frontloaded, the power of luck works the same — providing both the mechanism for victory and the supposed justification of it. Hal Jordan is the hero because he’s chosen to have the ring, and he’s chosen to have the ring because he’s the hero. The logic is, appropriately, perfectly circular.

Superheroes are generally seen as power fantasies…and obviously, they are that. But Lock, Stock and True Romance suggest another possibility too…which is that the power fantasies are closer to real life than might be altogether comfortable. Those (mostly) Western (mostly) white (mostly) guys who generally get to be superheroes…in real life, they really can wave their hands and destroy large portions of Afghanistan, just like Iron Man. They really can display some mystic green and bury themselves in ephemeral glowing toys. The fantasy isn’t the power so much as the adulation — the assurance that the luck is earned and that the whole world loves to be grist for the remorseless grinding of someone else’s plot.

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