It is the misfortune of unusual films to fall between any number of stools, commercially and critically speaking, and to risk not finding their audience. A case in point is Joe Tucker’s comic thriller Lava, which is being re-released this month 15 years after it was made and 13 years since it finally got a pitifully small London release.
The picture resembles the result of a bizarre experiment – what might happen, say, if a cast of Mike Leigh characters were let loose in a Tarantino movie with a disquieting Blue Jam-style soundtrack. The result is even more distinctive than that. It follows Smiggy (Tucker) and Philip (James Holmes), two loser-loners who bungle a mission to avenge the savage beating of Philip’s brother.
In mid-carnival Notting Hill, the pair come nose-to-nose and weapon-to-weapon with snarling Yardie drug-dealers, white-boy Jamaican wannabes and, most terrifying of all, Julie (Nicola Stapleton), a young mum who would sell her own son for a line of coke.
The production design (by Philip Robinson) and cinematography (by Roger Eaton and Ian Liggett) is already trippy long before the characters start on the Class As. The council flat where much of the action takes place has garish walls of purple, orange and lime that make it seems like a kindergarten for this gallery of sociopaths. Some short-sighted critics were quick to see the film as yet another latecomer to the Guy Ritchie Brit-crime bandwagon, citing the proliferation of drugs and guns and tough-nuts.
But the magic of Tucker’s screenplay is that it undermines every apparent act of bravado. The Yardies may be intimidating but they are also buffoons; the psychopath whose actions put Philip’s brother in a wheelchair can barely open his mouth without making an admission of his own vulnerability. There aren’t any heroes here; the laddishness of Ritchie’s films, as well as the hipness of Tarantino’s, is entirely absent.
No one would mistake Smiggy, with his desperate military lingo and ineptitude with weapons, for anything but a hopped-up Andy McNab fan. Stalking Julie’s flat, he warns whoever happens to be listening to “stay in the neutral zone” in case of “negligent discharge in the field”. (I was reminded of I’m Alan Partridge, which was made two years later, in which Alan tells his assistant Lynn to “remove yourself from the theatre of conflict – go and stand by the Yakults”.)
The film’s most striking scene comes when Smiggy snorts cocaine for the first time. “It tastes like the smell of dead ants,” he announces, then farts triumphantly. “Every kind of experience for Smiggy is in a way gastronomic,” the Leicester-born Tucker told me at the time of the picture’s release. “It’s that provincial thing of big breakfasts, big dinners, everything food-oriented, shovelling it down. He’s based on a few guys I’ve met. It’s that working-class Leicester background, petty and banal.”
Lava had its fans at the time, among them Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen. Mike Leigh (who directed Tucker in Career Girls) endorsed it and even wrote to Gilles Jacob, then head of the Cannes Film Festival, to encourage him to view this “most remarkable debut.”
Pete Clark in the Evening Standard called it “a British film of rare vitality, brimming with wit, and shot in short, interlocking scenes that demand full attention”. Tim Robey in the Telegraph admitted it was “rather accomplished in a pungent, acquired-taste sort of way”, while Nicholas Barber in the Independent on Sunday described it as “Reservoir Dogs remade by Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson” and said “the film has its own look and the characters have their own voices”.
Perhaps the distance that we now have from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and its imitators will allow audiences to take a chance, and to see Lava for the original and challenging anomaly that it is.
Lava is on DVD now.