For an iconoclast of the last few years of the 20th century, Guy Ritchie’s name has slowly but surely become associated both with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes films and with a very specific kind of cinema: sleek, stylish, attitude-heavy, and brimming with an excess of testosterone. In anticipation of the release of his adaptation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this week, a few of our critics got together to discuss Ritchie’s filmography to date, where it started going wrong, and what might lay ahead.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DS): As a filmmaker, Guy Ritchie’s name is oftentimes tethered to a specific time and place. The time was the changing of the millennium from the blockbuster-obsessed ’90s to the far more blockbuster-obsessed early aughts, and the place was a first-year film student’s dorm room, probably. I’m not saying this to cast aspersions, mind you; I had a Snatch poster up on my wall too. But there’s a definite kind of cinephile or casual viewer who gets into Ritchie’s movies, and at the risk of generalizing, it’s usually a young, probably heterosexual male. And I’m not talking about the kind of person who simply appreciates his movies. Rather, I mean to point out the sort of person who, for at least a few years of their lives, becomes convinced that Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is among the very best films ever made since the dawn of the form.
In previous years, this was the kind of cult following Ritchie enjoyed. On the strength of the two aforementioned crime sagas, Ritchie became one of the many (many, many) heirs apparent to the Tarantino throne, a director whose stylistic verve and top-notch command of blackly comic tone was perfectly situated within the modern film geek canon. But like so many of those directors, Ritchie never seemed to grow and develop as Tarantino did; he followed those films with the ill-fated Madonna vehicle, Swept Away, and then returned to his known milieu with diminishing returns by way of Revolver and then RocknRolla. The Sherlock Holmes movies saw his fortunes turn back, but now, Ritchie seems to have gone the way of so many directors with promising early features: studio cash-in properties.
Now, I may be of a more positive mindset than you both in coming into this, as somebody who happens to have quite enjoyed the oft-maligned second Holmes outing (I’ll always show up for a good Moriarty story, especially when Jared Harris gets to gnaw on the scenery), but it’s hard to deny at this point that Ritchie’s name doesn’t carry the same heft it once did in filmgoing circles. And though this may seem like a leading question, it’s not meant to be: where exactly did it go wrong?
Collin Brennan (CB): I understand the comparison to Tarantino, though I’d look even further back and acknowledge Ritchie’s debt to Martin Scorsese first. Lock, Stock has a lot in common with a film like Mean Streets, both in its lean, forceful editing and brutally casual depictions of violence.
In any case, all three directors specialize in an undeniably masculine sort of filmmaking that leaves little room for subtlety, softness, or well-rounded female characters. Ritchie’s version of working-class London is a place where wit and strength are prized above all and compassion will get you killed. In this way, his early work belongs to the same neo-Western genre that houses Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, etc. It’s no wonder such films appeal to your typically young, typically heterosexual male, for whom nuance adds more inconvenience than color.
But Lock, Stock is also a very playful film, and it would be wrong to define a young Guy Ritchie by anything other than his stylistic wizardry. His great skill as a filmmaker has always been his ability to juggle plot lines, and he seemed to approach each of those early scripts as if it were a jigsaw puzzle: paint an elaborate picture, then wedge the pieces together until they fit. It’s an exhilarating exercise to watch unfold in real-time, and one of my first thoughts every time I go back and watch Lock, Stock is how much of a headache writing the screenplay must have been.
I can’t say I see any traces of that in Swept Away, which is a festering piece of rom-com garbage and a vanity project if I’ve ever seen one. But it’s definitely present in a film like Revolver — perhaps too present, even. I like Revolver more than most people, and I contextualize it as Ritchie’s attempt to get back to the world of crime that had been so fruitful for him early on. The one thing it lacks, of course, is the killer soundtrack that became synonymous with Lock, Stock and Snatch, and it’s my Exhibit A for why music matters so much in making a movie fun.
The thing is, those soundtracks seemed so lovingly selected. I can almost picture Ritchie leaning over his home stereo and obsessing over them — trying to put as much of himself into them as possible. Maybe that’s where your answer lies, Dom: Ritchie’s films went off the rails when he stopped injecting so much of his own personality — his own abundant playfulness — in them. I wonder, Blake, if you can pin down the exact moment you lost faith in Ritchie’s early promise? I’d have to think it was somewhere between Snatch and Sherlock Holmes, but the edges are a bit blurred to me.
Blake Goble (BG): I’m pretty sure he lost his promise in many people’s eyes with Swept Away, the weirdest, most brutish, and regressive remake ever made. That was a film designed to hypothetically make a star vehicle for his then-wife, Madge (Ritchie’s first mistake: he clearly never saw Shanghai Surprise), but it just put Ritchie so beyond the pale. It was in bad taste. Not dogfighting and hearty violence bad taste; those are all textural pleasures in Ritchie’s crime films. No, Swept Away robbed Ritchie of his initial promise.
But, I’d posit he recovered in his own ways. And he’s stayed true, even if his handle on his own style and storytelling is uneven at best. That’s why it’s so much fun to look back at the early efforts.
Snatch and Lock, Stock, Ritchie’s dynamic duo, deal in ostensibly similar London foggy pulp, but what a pair. Collin, you nailed his affinity for puzzle-logic plotting made possible through shifty characters. Bullet-Tooth Tony? Tom, Soap, Eddy, and Bacon? It’s all so legit and silly that it almost makes you want to burn every existing copy of Boondock Saints out of spite. Ritchie made cracking crime fair. And the music, yeah, Collin, I owned the Snatch soundtrack and loved everything about it, from the moody and perfect use of Massive Attack to the freshly polished chestnuts from the likes of The Stranglers, and cutely enough, Madonna.
Even his Sherlock Holmes flicks could have killed with their twisty plotting and great taste in music were they not loaded with music video chic (and the flagrant use of Robert Downey Jr.) to pander to the kids. Still, it’s an absurdly fun whodunit, complete with a bonkers Hans Zimmer score. Ritchie’s perhaps at his best when he gets to play with plot and tunes. So, there’s still something wild and deft there.
Ritchie’s now something of a bon vivant for Warner. And hey, that’s just fine. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. looks absolutely unnecessary, like a hipster Mad Men spy romp, but that’s okay. Edward Starr blasting through the trailer speaks to Ritchie’s pulp sensibilities. And the affinity for retro-chic aesthetics could be Ritchie’s vintage interests on display as well. After all, Ritchie sometimes feels like a ‘60s/’70s director in the vein of Mike Hodges (Get Carter), Michael Winner (Death Wish), Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), or any other pulp maestro of the era. Ritchie’s doing the same mixtape movie-making he’s always done, just now under a $75 million budget, for Warner, based on a TV show. And it looks a hell of a lot better than the ill-fated, similarly placed Avengers of ’98 (Sean Connery in a teddy bear suit – look into it).
And now, Ritchie’s currently filming Warner’s King Arthur adaptation. For some reason. Or another.
This question may be too obvious, but did Ritchie just opt to sell out when he met Joel Silver for RocknRolla? And is there anything wrong with that? There’s a litany of indie darlings that go the studio way after breaking out, so what makes Ritchie so different? Money’s fun, right?
Is that punk kid Guy Ritchie who directed Lock, Stock still inside the dapper, studio-loved Guy Ritchie who’s probably getting a few million to make King Arthur look cool?
CB: The Sherlock Holmes films totally missed the point in a lot of ways, but that’s not entirely Ritchie’s fault. Warner was going to demand big explosions and cartoonish steampunk set dressings from anybody who took the project on. In fact, you could even argue that Ritchie saved those movies in a lot of ways and that hiring him was an unsung stroke of genius. The director shares the detective’s affinity for complexity, and few other filmmakers could have stuffed all that plot into a summer blockbuster and gotten away with it. Was it bad for Ritchie’s indie bad-boy reputation? Probably. But like Blake said, he made a boatload of money and got to indulge at least some of his personal interests along the way.
The scene in Sherlock Holmes that sticks out most vividly for me is that early boxing match, in which everything plays out in slow motion as we’re made privy to Holmes’ internal monologue. It’s ultra-stylistic and ultra-fun, but it also gives us a peek into how Ritchie’s own mind works. He’s always trying to stay one step ahead of his audience, as if making a film is like playing a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek. I think both Holmes movies drag a bit and overstay their welcome, but they at least have flashes of that kind of playfulness.
No idea what the hell is going to happen with King Arthur, though. Whereas you can see the fit with Holmes, I’m just not buying the notion that Ritchie’s breakneck pacing will lend itself to medieval fantasy, unless the whole thing’s just knights cutting heads off and swearing at each other in Cockney accents. Shit. That’s what it’s going to be, isn’t it?
DS: Collin, it totally is. And honestly, I can’t sit here and stunt as though there isn’t a certain level of intrigue to that idea. Compared to something like Antoine Fuqua’s eminently forgettable 2004 stab at Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, at least it’ll be an Arthurian tale with some kind of distinctive authorial flavor to it.
For me, one of the best sequences he’s assembled (if not the best) is the crescendo in Lock, Stock that leads up to the climactic shootout, as John Murphy’s “Zorba” forms a hilariously anarchic backbone for the massive bloodshed that’s about to follow. As has been touched on repeatedly during this discussion, there’s a wildness to it, and while part of that can just be chalked up to the vision of a young filmmaker trying to make as striking a debut as possible, it’s a truly fun scene, instead of one that unfolds with the cloying “see how much fun this is?” approach that characterized so much of the Holmes movies, particularly the first.
And I think that’s a key central point to what we’re discussing: no filmmaker remains the same forever. That’s anathema, frankly; even as a Kevin Smith apologist, I’ll be the first to point out that this is how you get Kevin Smith. But for Ritchie, his evolution seems to have been much more lateral. If his defining characteristic early on was indeed that of a stylist, that seems to be the only thing that Warner’s ever really sought after. And that’s fine, I guess. But it’s hard to sit here and make the argument that it doesn’t then feel like something of a missed opportunity that this same style and verve never evolved into something more. Maybe Ritchie’s the Weezer of ’90s filmmakers: the best stuff all came early, and some of what came after it is pretty good if you accept it’ll never top the first two.
BG: Hey, if we’re going to brand Ritchie a stylist, and we should, at least the man’s consistent about it. And frankly, why not give him a lifetime of credibility for actually making films that’ve stuck. Films with panache like Snatch. And Lock, Stock. Films with punchy music montage Cinemania, like Snatch’s boxing match that kicks high gear with Oasis’s “F*ckin’ in the Bushes”. And how awesome is it that Ritchie practically made a theme song out of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for Lock, Stock?
CB: Oh, there are plenty of tunes that I used to love on their own but have since come to associate more with Ritchie movies than anything else (The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown”, for example). And speaking of dogs, our conversation seems to have twisted itself into an inadvertent hot take: maybe Ritchie isn’t one.
At least not quite yet. His days of making lean, mean indie crime flicks may be behind him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to find alternative outlets for his madness. I think Dom’s Weezer comparison is astute. As fans, we don’t like to be told to measure our expectations. We don’t like to be told that the best days of our favorite artists are behind us, that all we have to look forward to are diminishing returns. Maybe the one thing I’d like to see out of Ritchie, moving forward, is a feistiness that resists the conventional demands of big-budget projects. We saw it with Holmes to a certain extent, and there’s hope that we’ll see it with King Arthur. If he insists on choosing blockbuster franchises, he should also insist on injecting as much of his own verve into them as he can. And a few more killer soundtracks wouldn’t hurt.