Film... Richie: he's just one of the Guys
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
Guy Ritchie's films are now unfashionable enough to be fun again. I'm aware that doesn't sound like much of a compliment, so here's a slightly nicer way of putting it. Ritchie's early, career-making movies are so inseparable from the Cool Britannia culture that came to define British pop culture in the late Nineties and early 2000s, that in order to understand what's really worthwhile about them, we've had to wait not just for the party to run its course, but the hangover too.
No modern English director has made quite the same impact on British culture with quite as much speed - and then been reviled with quite so much energy for doing so. We're now almost two decades into Ritchie's career, in what might be called phase three.
Starting with Sherlock Holmes in 2009, he's embarked on a series of mainstream studio movies that have dialled back the Ritchiness while still retaining a distinctly British flavour. These include his latest project, a feature-length remake of the Sixties TV spy series The Man From UNCLE and presumably also his King Arthur film, which will arrive in cinemas next year.
But his debut feature, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - a tumbling, scabrous crime comedy in which half of London's underworld chases a pair of antique shotguns and £500,000 of drug money - was Ritchie served neat in a dirty glass. And when it was released in the summer of 1998, its effect was instant and unmissable.
For years, Britpop bands like Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene had been lucratively casting back to the sounds and styles of the Sixties. What Ritchie did was fit the same rose-tinted lens on British cinema. At the time he was often likened to Quentin Tarantino, the upstart Yank whose Pulp Fiction had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1994, pulling the trigger on a revolution in American cinema.
Tarantino's work was a stew of obscure trash cinema, French New Wave cool and Hong Kong action, but the films that appeared to have shaped Lock, Stock were ones you'd see if you turned on the television on a bank holiday weekend. It's 100pc British beef. It brought the buoyant mood of ensemble capers like The Italian Job and The Lavender Hill Mob to the shifting London landscape of noirish thrillers like Night and the City and The Long Good Friday. Its bravura and backbone came from swaggering dramas of alpha-malehood like Alfie and Performance, but it was softened with the same kind of infectious energy of Richard Lester's Beatles films - and perhaps even brushed by the manic comedy of the BBC radio series, The Goon Show, with its thickly accented cast of half-recognisable grotesques.
It's his irony-free affection for popular mid-century movie culture that makes Ritchie's The Man From UNCLE makes perfect sense. He might be the only director working today who's capable of warming up the source material without sending it up.
Back in the Lock, Stock days, Ritchie's contemporaries were Danny Boyle, Nick Love and Shane Meadows. He started work on Lock, Stock in 1995, adapting it from his own 20-minute short film Hard Case, with money invested in part by Trudie Styler (which explains the presence of husband, Sting, in the film).
By this point Boyle and Meadows were already in business: Boyle's first feature, Shallow Grave had won a Bafta that year, while Meadows was shooting his own debut, a crime comedy called Small Time, in Nottingham.
Those films felt as intensely British as the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral and a run of genteel period dramas crowned by Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, which had been box-office hits in the early Cool Britannia days. But they were leaner, scrappier and working-class down to the marrow.
The most persistent criticism levelled at Ritchie's work is that the director is a "mockney", with roots in a far more elevated social strata than his East End-based characters: he grew up in the Home Counties, was privately schooled, and his parents both married into the aristocracy after their divorce.
What Boyle also brought to the party, which Ritchie went on to gleefully pilfer, was the aggressively snappy visual style that was flourishing in the British TV advertising and music-video businesses in the early Nineties. The style was pioneered in part by Jonathan Glazer - Blur's Clockwork Orange-inspired video for 'The Universal' and the iconic Guinness surfer ad were both his.
The bursts of slow-motion and fast-motion, freeze-frames and quick cuts were ideal for Ritchie's purposes. They were visceral fun, but they also allowed him to keep his characters' hearts and souls at arm's length. When Vinnie Jones's mob enforcer Big Chris solemnly intones "It's been emotional" at the end of Lock, Stock, the moment works as a self-aware punchline.
But the lack of emotional depth to Lock, Stock's storyline was more than made up for by the brio of its telling. Ritchie's screenplay juggles four separate gangs, plus various supporting hoodlums and scumbags, with total ease. And his dialogue, with its boozy blend of street slang, is endlessly quotable and frequently hilarious. Even the character names were jokes: Lock, Stock and its 2000 follow-up, Snatch, introduce us to the likes of Barry the Baptist (so-called for his penchant for drownings), Boris the Blade (aka Boris the Bullet-Dodger), Franky Four Fingers, Bullet-Tooth Tony, Bacon and Soap.
Lock, Stock's story is a moral one, but it finds a rich seam of black humour in its characters' moral failings, and its cliffhanger ending - a proud callback to The Italian Job's teetering bus - leaves them suspended, like the East End gangland equivalent of Schrödinger's Cat, between glorious success and even more glorious failure.
If Boyle's Trainspotting felt like an agitative jab-jab-jab to polite British cinema on its release in 1996, Lock, Stock was the haymaker. It made £18m (€25m) on a budget of less than £1m, which in turn made Snatch, Ritchie's almost identically toned 2000 follow-up, an inevitability. The presence of international stars like Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro among the British cast members was all the proof needed that Ritchie had made it abroad.
But in the UK, his style had become familiar enough to be spoofable. The most memorable sketch in The Fast Show's 2000 Christmas special was a trailer for a non-existent film called It's A Right Royal Cockney Barrel of Monkeys, a London-set caper movie featuring characters with names like Tommy Pockets and Davey Hairbrush.
Meanwhile, the genre Lock, Stock had revived was already turning sour. Eased into existence by Lottery money, a growing tide of terrible British gangster films was flooding cinemas. Snatch had arrived in cinemas in the summer of 2000 riding on the coattails of three of the very worst: Ordinary Decent Criminal, Rancid Aluminium and Love, Honour and Obey.
To Ritchie's credit, he immediately abandoned gangster movies to try something different. The only hitch was that his next two films were both awful. The first was Swept Away, a sado-masochistic romance with his then-wife Madonna in the lead role.
In Britain, it slunk on to DVD in May 2003, six months after its US première. In interviews, Madonna suggested that the negative reaction to the film was a backlash against Ritchie's prior success - and, by extension, their high-profile marriage.
Whatever agendas were at play, though, there's no explaining away Columbia Tristar's decision to bury Swept Away in the UK. Ritchie's first two films had made almost £25m between them at the British box-office, so for his third to bypass cinemas completely meant the situation must have been serious. That said, the film can be enjoyed today as a camp curio: while Madonna can't act, compared to Adriano Giannini, her Italian co-star, she's Barbara Stanwyck. The real knockout blow to the director's career came in 2005, with the release of Revolver - a film that was nothing like his earlier gangster comedies.
Ritchie's mooted "comeback film" was an all-but-unwatchable existential heist picture set in a quasi-mythical version of Las Vegas: imagine Inception if it had been written and directed by a wombat. While few people actually saw it, the surrounding publicity tour was damaging. Ritchie's in-depth explanations of the film's use of number and colour symbolism from the then-popular Kabbalah cult (Madonna was a disciple) only seemed to confirm suspicions that he'd become lost in some far-flung show-business nebula.
The trends he'd single-handedly kick-started were also turning sour. The Lock, Stock-aping crime capers had morphed into sullen "geezer-pleasers" - football hooligan films and gangland massacre movies, with Danny Dyer replacing Statham as the genre's figurehead. Danny Boyle broke free by parlaying his hyperactive style into genre cinema - first horror, in 28 Days Later and Sunshine, then triumphs of the human spirit stories (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) that made him an Oscar-winner.
Ritchie needed a rebirth, and to the surprise of some, it came quickly. The prolific American producer Joel Silver reached out to him in early 2007, with a view to bringing him into the fold at Warner Bros to work on planned adaptations of the DC Comics properties Lobo and Sgt Rock. Ritchie's relationship with Warners began with what was effectively a soft reset of his filmmaking circuits: he was given £10m and came back with RocknRolla, a serviceable, London-set ensemble mob caper in the style of his early work. Crucially, it made a profit.
The DC projects were moved to the back burner, and replaced by two Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, both of which were international hits. Next came The Man From UNCLE, with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, followed by Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur in 2016.
As such, Ritchie is a survivor of his own success. Even more than Boyle, his style translates well to a blockbuster canvas - we just have to push through the muddy memories of TFI Friday, Loaded magazine and Tracy Emin's bed to realise it's a style worth cherishing. If you're at a loose end tonight, and the DVDs are close to hand, put on Lock, Stock or Snatch. They're more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
The Man From UNCLE is out now
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