Revisiting the Reviled — Guy Ritchie Took a ‘Revolver’ and Shot Himself in the Foot

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

For a brief period it seemed that Guy Ritchie would be a major force in cinema. With Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie quickly established himself as a kind Cockney version of Quentin Tarantino. His first two films were lively, funny, and entertaining crime stories. Then something happened, and Ritchie’s filmmaking output would never be the same. As happened to many a poor soul before him, Guy Ritchie soon found himself married to Madonna. Ritchie would then use the clout following Snatch to make Swept Away, a remake of the 1974 film by Lina Wertmüller, which would star the director’s new wife. It was a critical and commercial bomb, resulting with a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes and earning less than a million dollars at the box office worldwide. Following the debacle that was Swept Away, Ritchie’s next film was being sold as a return to form from the director. But Revolver wasn’t that return to form. It was completed in 2005, and wallowed in distribution hell until finally getting a limited theatrical release in 2007, earning less than $100,000 in its U.S. theatrical run.

Typically I extend a lot of goodwill towards ambitious failures, and Revolver is most certainly that. But this isn’t the kind of ambitious failure that hints at glimmers of brilliance that are just slightly out of reach, Revolver is a film of such wildly misguided ambition that any narrative coherency is lost in translation. Because Ritchie didn’t make Revolver as another stylized crime caper, he loaded the film with allusions to numerology and the Kabbalah. Like most people, I have little understanding of both numerology and Kabbalah, which might explain just why Revolver is such an unwieldy mess – kind of like The Astrologer, a crazed unreleased movie from the ‘70s that is heavily influenced by numerology and similarly incomprehensible. If we were to look at the marriage between Ritchie and Madonna, one could say that she got a British accent and he got a lesson in Kabbalah. Simply put, nobody wins.

The plot, if you can call it that, of Revolver revolves around Jake Green (Jason Statham), who has just been released from a seven-year prison sentence. Sometime following his release, he goes to the casino operated by Dorothy Macha (Ray Liotta), a brutal mobster who wronged Jake years prior. After winning a large chunk of change off Macha playing some kind of game, it’s all remarkably unclear, Macha puts out a hit on Jake. Before the bullets fly, Jake is aided by Zach (Vincent Pastore) and Avi (André Benjamin), who usher him to safety before making Jake work for them. Jake has come down with a mysterious illness and only these two, I think, can help – again, all of this is so unclear, and then the mysterious illness seems to just fade from the story. Jake, Zach, and Avi enter into a tenuous partnership that sees them ripping off Macha and turning his life into a living hell, fanning the flames of violent feuds. Macha is facing pressure from Sam Gold, a mysterious mover and shaker behind the scenes of the criminal underworld. There’s also Asian gangsters and a hitman known as Sorter (Mark Strong), and they do stuff for various reasons that make little to no sense. I could attempt to explain some of the twists that occur towards the end of Revolver, but even after rewinding certain scenes a couple of times, I have no fucking clue what in the hell was happening.

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Revolver is a film that thinks it is just overflowing with profound twists and turns for its characters, though through its robust incoherency and incompetence never gets a single twist to make any impact other than sheer bewilderment. It oddly presents the twist and then proceeds to explain why that moment was important, working backwards for no apparent reason. If you can watch Revolver and figure out what in the hell is going on, you’re a much more astute observer of cinema than I am, or you’re familiar with numerology and Kabbalah.

Ritchie does try to give Revolver a bit of stylistic flair. One sequence where Avi and Jake are playing chess and discussing the philosophical nature of the con game the camera swoops along the board with each successive move. It has a nice look to it, but when combined with the abstract explanation it is, like everything else in Revolver, barely comprehensible. Ritchie also borrows liberally from Tarantino with an animated sequence that is astoundingly similar to the anime sequence in Kill Bill. There are other minor flourishes that add a bit of visual flair, but there are also the attempts to add flair with poorly rendered CGI, the glossy artifice being as distracting as the incomprehensible dialogue.

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It’s easy to respect the ambition behind Revolver, though it’s impossible to respect the finished product. This is a purposefully unwieldy film where very little makes sense, including character, action, story, and stylistic choices. With Revolver, Guy Ritchie attempted to make a crime story unfold within the confines of philosophical and religious frameworks that aren’t easily understood by most people. It would also mark, as of this writing, the last collaboration between Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie. While Ritchie tried to return once again to hard boiled crime with RockNRolla, he wouldn’t find commercial success again until undertaking the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. While successful, those films have also faded from the consciousness of pop culture. Now he has an adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. around the corner, hoping to cash-in on some spy-based nostalgia. But 10 years ago, at the height of his cultural relevance, Guy Ritchie took a Revolver and shot himself squarely in the foot. He’s been hobbling around ever since. But at least he’s no longer married to Madonna.

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