“I can’t abide them kind. You see them in the taverns, you know? Tramps and drunk teamsters and crazed miners. Sportin’ their pistols and acting like they was bad men, but without any sand or character.” – “Little” Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992).
“Little” Bill (Gene Hackman) delivers the above soliloquy to W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a mousy, East Coast author that Bill’s commandeered to pen his biography. Beauchamp is a fictional character that typifies Guy Ritchie: A lettered man from an enviable education and class, he’s drawn west, into the rough company of gunfighters and assassins.
There are a few civilized men, with well-financed intellects, who envy the preternatural cunning of the crook, the cheat, the killer. Guy Ritchie’s blood mixes with British royalty (he’s a descendant of King Edward I in fact). While most of us careened helter-skelter through public schools, Guy went to a private school — at least until he was expelled. Urban legend pegs his suspension to either drug possession or cutting class to entertain a young lady. Either indictment fits his current character profile. Whatever the case may have been, we are left with an upper-crust kid clearly infatuated with disobedience and scamper, perhaps even knavery.
Much the same as W.W. Beauchamp or Ishmael in Moby Dick — or even Bilbo Baggins’ tour of duty with Thorin Oakenshield’s dwarves — Ritchie’s another tourist driven by a hunger for adventure. A quest of sorts, for a masculine-positive identity. (It might also help explain why Guy Ritchie turned the classic English literary figure, Sherlock Holmes, into a pit-fighter.) With his movies, Guy Ritchie’s objective, it seems, is to pantomime the elegant immaturity of men. To romanticize traditional machismo. To elevate obscene speech, skulduggery, and roughhousing beyond the secret order of delinquents, and project it for the world to either admire, or dismiss — quite incorrectly — as simple chauvinism.
In a cultural system ruled by ruthless pencil pushers, one in which feminist scolds tell men they must behave a certain way without bothering to inform them of the ever-shifting rules ahead of time, it’s comforting to find respite inside Guy Ritchie’s cinematic sanctuary of misconduct and masculinity where men achieve great things following their worst instincts. Where just about any problem can be solved by a well-thrown punch to a weak jaw. Where pistols trump intellect, and where fortune does indeed favor the bold.
This is Guy Ritchie’s cinematic criminal record:
THE HARD CASE (1995)
Few have seen Guy Ritchie’s short film, The Hard Case, though it’s fairly easy to track down on YouTube if you don’t mind crappy quality. The Hard Case is essentially the short film that later graduated into the full-fledged hit, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The plot is familiar. Some sassy lads try to bust a gangster’s card game. It doesn’t go the way they anticipated. A brouhaha ensues. The Hard Case is Guy Ritchie’s first foray into the underbelly of London’s East End, and one can feel a bit of trepidation: He doesn’t fit in, not yet. The eye of his camera can’t fully meet the eyes of his geezer characters. His feet are far from sure. One gets the creeping suspicion that the crooks he gathered to make his resume piece may have lost his trendy trainers to them as well. Ritchie-philes will find some amusement at being introduced to Bacon and Hatchet Harry for the first time, but trust me, they’re pretty much strangers here. Far too ambivalent and awkward to fill the shoes of their future manifestations. The real standouts in The Hard Case are a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo by a young Stephen Graham, (who would go on to play "Tommy" in Snatch) and a bad-case-of-switched-cases ending that will feel quite cozy to those familiar with the Guy Ritchie brand.
LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998)
Three years and a few premiere investors after The Hard Case, Guy Ritchie debuted the cult phenom that put him on the map: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. An indie caper so completely street level that even though I’ve seen the film 20 different times, I’m positive we never glimpse the sky more than once during the length of its entire running time. The rest of London, of England, of Earth — of the universe — doesn’t exist outside of these East End streets.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is essentially an expansion of the world he was roughly sketching out in The Hard Case. Four mates, unranked hooligan amateurs, seek to improve their financial status by fleecing a known underworld super-villain, Hatchet Harry, at cards. Of course, the game is rigged, and the lads end up in the gangster’s pocket. Around them, ostensibly disparate factors all find their way toward a singular resolution, a hallmark in Ritchie cinema. A set of stolen, seemingly cursed, antique shotguns. A ganja heist that goes terrifically sideways. A father and son debt collection team. A homicidal maniac wearing an Afro. These are simply toys at Ritchie’s disposal — and his methods of disposal are not always the most sanitary.
Instead of pandering to star power, Guy Ritchie beseeched ex-convicts and street maulers like Lenny McLean (if you’ve never seen the footage of McLean’s nuclear assault on "Mad Gypsy" Bradshaw in the boxing ring, it bears viewing) to fill out his East End habitat. Along with those thugs, he cast British athletes like Vinnie Jones and an at-the-time-unknown British Olympic high-diving hopeful named Jason Statham. He also wrangled a bona fide rock legend: Sting.
Ritchie dressed them impeccably and made sure to turn the music up whenever they made their respective entrances: The sense is less of a filmmaker introducing us to his cast than a hustler introducing us to his entourage. With Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie is letting his old boarding-school alumni know he’s found a new clique. He’s a jester among hardened criminals and career philanderers, a poet among poon-hounds and pickpockets.
For those who complain that Ritchie’s films mostly ignore women, he pretty much acknowledges the accusation before employing it as a tactical advantage. In that one moment in the movie — you’ll know it when you get there — Suzy Ratner’s Gloria just may be the most complete female role model Ritchie has ever written.
Though they bear a resemblance to their counterparts in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the long jackets worn by Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) are wool covert coats: a bit more refined, a fair sight more expensive. I only bring this trifle up to illustrate that with Snatch, Guy Ritchie had finally arrived, finicky fashion sense and all, and his retinue needed the wardrobe upgrade.
The aesthetic character composite of the “Ritchie Brand” is that of the handsome, often bruised-fruit faces of undercard prizefighters, outfitted in posh English dress attire. Ritchie’s style sense is mostly adopted from English doorman culture, where pub bouncers with sledgehammered noses and knuckle tattoos dress like barristers. Our British cousins may eat the same thing for breakfast every single day of their natural lives, but they prefer diversity when it comes to their wardrobe. (Unless we’re talking about Pikeys. Then it’s Gaelic retro all day long.)
I don’t think Snatch has gotten nearly enough credit for how funny a film it is. I mean, it’s a movie with a double dirty entendre baked into the title, we should expect the subject matter to go off grid as far as decorum is concerned. (“In the quiet words of the Virgin Mary … come again?”) Guy Ritchie is fully aware that humor is a well-edged weapon among the company of men. Comedic sparring is just another rite of passage. Camaraderie is often built on a foundation of felony-assault clowning. Jokes that would get you canceled in a second if they were splashed on a CNN chyron earn promotion of status among the fraternal order.
The swank fashion and salty humor of Snatch exemplify the duality of Guy Ritchie. Snatch is about two things: the gory underworld of unlicensed boxing and diamonds. If any dichotomy personifies this filmmaker’s instinctual drives, his classical upbringing versus 300 million years of male devolution, it’s precious stones and pugilists. The crackling, static electricity between bling and blammo.
Anyone’s who’s seen Snatch is going to tell you that the centerpiece of the feature is Mickey O’Neil’s (Brad Pitt) bare-knuckle melee with Horace "Good Night" Anderson, (Scott Welch) set to Oasis’ “Fuckin’ In The Bushes.” This English director may notoriously shy away from onscreen carnage when it applies to knives and firearms, but when it comes to fisticuffs? His camera coverage borders on pornographic. The frenetic intensity of Ritchie’s editing ADD comes into full bloom during this bout. The film’s frame rate shifts with no concern for the viewers’ attention capabilities. Punches land like MOAB shells, heads twist on their axes at terrible angles, bodies rag-doll through the air, and blood spritzes the wanton, shouting faces of the rowdy congregation in attendance. It is legitimately one of cinema’s greatest one-on-one contests. A rumble of some notoriety.
Welcome to the post-Madonna portion of Guy Ritchie’s filmography. Revolver is the director’s first American export and though his intuition probably convinced him that his signature style was tailor made for noir, this is a filmmaker that would have really created some fireworks in the Wild West.
As it stands, however, Guy Ritchie’s mutation of British crime film and American noir has lain dormant in his fans’ collected memories and in their collected Blu-rays of his work. (I myself have had Revolver in my collection for over a decade and just popped the wrapper off of it this week.) While watching Revolver, one has the depressing suspicion that, at the time, Guy Ritchie felt he wasn’t maturing as a filmmaker and considered this a negative, despite the fact that immaturity was his most pertinent asset.
Revolver is a wildly terrible movie. A convoluted clash of culture and substance, several tiers outside of this filmmaker’s range. Which isn’t to say Guy Ritchie isn’t talented. He is. The exasperating factor when it comes to this movie is watching Guy Ritchie pretend to be something he seemed to have genuine disdain for in his early years. Gifted. Substantial. Famous. The very achievements his old boarding-school chums would have had designs on, before he abandoned them for punk rock, chicks, and jiu-jitsu.
Revolver is a relentlessly dour buffet of the director’s worst artistic instincts but blended into a paste so that it’s impossible to distinguish one bad choice from another. To bullet-point them here is to donate far more effort than the product qualifies for, though I’m positive that if you asked him, Guy Ritchie would tell you that he never worked as hard on any film as he did on Revolver. Disasters of this enormity usually demand a lot of overtime.
Yet another Guy Ritchie picture about mid-level gangsters ending up in the pockets of criminal heavyweights they have no business messing about with. But since he was just liberated from matrimonial serfdom to the world’s biggest pop star, this Ritchie chestnut feels more personal than it did in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
Guy Ritchie is making a statement during the opening credits of his fifth feature-length film. Kicking things into proper gear with Black Strobe’s “I Am A Man,” he’s pledging a return to form after the esoteric misery of his cheerless dud, Revolver. The difference between RocknRolla and Revolver is the difference between genuine maturity and court-mandated maturity. By 2008, Guy Ritchie had naturally grown as a filmmaker. His peccadilloes for impropriety and the twin pendulums of fate and luck were still intact in his work, but the young bull had aged. Refined a bit. His hooligan swagger is still evident in RocknRolla, it’s just that the collar of the crime has changed to a more brilliant shade of white this time around.
It’s interesting that the film’s titular character, a drug-addicted, deadbeat rock star named Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), has more than a few details in common with Guy Ritchie. They both attended expensive boarding schools. They come from money and managed to land in even more money creating works of artistic revolt. We can assume that after the decline of his marriage, and after the deafening raspberries that Swept Away and Revolver received from fans and critics alike, the filmmaker may have himself fancied a trashed flat, a cargo hold of gin and painkillers, and a long, sincere sabbatical from the world stage. I believe that it was in this period of self-audit that Johnny Quid was born.
A spoiled man-child at an existential crossroads.
Quid doesn’t have a real role in this story. Or better stated, Guy Ritchie hasn’t really written Johnny Quid as anything other than a musical interlude. A reason to crank The Clash, and dust off Lou Reed records, sure. A reason to romanticize heroin one more time in cinema, maybe. Until Ritchie’s push to induct him into the movie’s plot, Johnny Quid is quite happy to occupy purgatory – a stoned ghost living in squalor, with central London’s latest development boom ascending like the Tower of Babel toward heaven above him.
I believe once you begin to view Kebbell’s character in a specific light — that he is the celluloid embodiment of Guy Ritchie, his creator — the prodigal pathway this junkie follows begins to make more sense. During RocknRolla’s final act, Johnny Quid is beaten and dragged before the Municipal Sanhedrin for disposal. This court includes his stepfather, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), whose cronies are financing the new face of London, as well as Archy (Mark Strong) and The Wild Bunch (Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and Gerard Butler). The latter is a trinity of smart-arses, skimming as much capital as they can from the sudden influx of loosely protected cash blowing through their streets. It is in this company of corporate sharks and con artists that Johnny Quid (Guy Ritchie) is finally compelled out of indecision, into decision. Inaction, into action. In this moment he looks at his stepfather and says:
“What can I say? I’m a junkie. Crackhead. No-gooder. You should have never wasted your money on that school.”
Guy Ritchie is communicating to his audience, by way of rock-star proxy, that even though RocknRolla and Revolver flirt with celebrity and fame, infamy is where Ritchie’s heart truly lies. It thunders in the East End, eclipsing the beating kick drum of the streets, and the stickups, and the shakedowns. It melds with the savage humors of his gangster movies’ no-gooders and scam artists.
RocknRolla concludes much the same way as it started, with a curled lip and a promise. Guy Ritchie gives us his word that Johnny Quid and the Real RocknRolla shall return. As for who or what a Real RocknRolla may be? Perhaps these Gentlemen coming up the block may know?
Pedro Schwarzenegger is a true Northman. A savage man in a savage place and time. His taste in cinema? Savage. And yet he does all his writing on an iPhone, like some kind of candy-ass millennial.