By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

In one corner, ”The Long Good Friday” and a British cinematic tradition of hoods and skanks whose identities and accents are not, at first, readily tracked by American audiences. In the other, the Tarantino legacy of chatty goof-ups mishandling weapons. In the middle, ”Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” a strenuously cheeky, blackly comic heist picture — the feature debut of writer- director Guy Ritchie — that coasts a long way on the charms of East End London lads dealing and double-dealing each other, with pauses for audience laughs.

You can keep track of the main quartet of schemers because they’re the most attractive: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Jason Statham play mates who, having blown £100,000 in a crooked card game, must repay a vicious porn broker (P.H. Moriarty, also from ”The Long Good Friday”) the wad and then some, or risk losing their fingers. Their solution is to rip off the low-rent thugs next door, who in turn are planning to scam a bunch of poshly bred, glassy-eyed pot growers, etc. There’s also the matter of a couple of extremely valuable antique firearms that pass from hand to hand. For no good measure, Sting plays the father of one of the cardsharps, a bar owner who nurses his own complicated grudge. At some point, Mikis Theodorakis’ bouzouki music from Zorba the Greek marks the passage of time.

Minus the innate feel for the British class distinctions and the language nuances Ritchie toys with so snarkily, minus the full appreciation of casting soccer ruffian Vinnie Jones as a debt collector or the late real-life heavy Lenny McLean as an enforcer, ”Lock, Stock” inevitably loses some of the punch it packs for native speakers. The film’s lures, while undeniable, are synthetic, and we never do learn what fuels all the greed besides pints of beer. After awhile, the Cute Criminals all look alike — the rumpled spawn of Tarantino, casually spilling blood, accompanied by a catchy soundtrack.