Writer-director Guy Ritchie's background in commercials and music-video is put to good use in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his debut feature, with the debutant coming up with a wonderfully crafted and stylish bit of filmmaking. With both hats a good fit, Ritchie also impresses with a clever, fast, although sometimes difficult-to-understand screenplay rich in rapid-fire dialogue and plenty of twists.

Lock, Stock follows three rival groups of contemporary London lowlifes who ultimately converge and largely succumb to their lives of violence, drugs and greed after a gambling debt sends these losers on a round-robin chase through London's sleazier districts and noisiest showdowns. Only Eddie (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Statham) and Soap (Dexter Fletcher), a quartet of East End troublemakers forced to quickly repay the debt, and fearsome debt collector Big Chris (Vinnie Jones), henchman for underworld boss Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty) who is owed the money, manage to emerge unscathed.

The bumpy, fiery ride of cat, mouse and rat begins after cardshark Eddie loses big-time to Harry in a rigged card game. The quartet devises a heist scheme to get the money back, but it also pits them against a group of prep-school druggies and a more hardcore band of thieves. Ritchie also throws into the wacky brew two bumbling crooks and a sadistic black crime figure who likes to torch.

While Lock, Stock is derivative of a barrel of films-from Reservoir Dogs even to The Lavender Hill Mob, it never ceases to entertain. Ritchie is greatly helped by terrific performances all around, with Moran, Flemyng, Moriarty and Jones as standouts.

Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones pulls out all the stops, delivering an overall moody, sepia-toned look for noir-ish effect and no shortage of tricks-slow-motion, quick cuts, extreme angles, surprising points-of-view (such as from inside a pot), freeze frames-but all perfectly suited to the film's content and comic tone.

Lock, Stock is never so over-the-top that we don't buy it. Rather, it's a witty, pulpy, well-crafted entertainment that should satisfy hip, more demanding audiences who won't mind not understanding a couple of lines of the rapid-fire, slangy dialogue. Further delighting are the many rounds of gags and a twisty ending that hits an ironic target.

--Doris Toumarkine