A Guy Thing: Ritchie's Rollercoaster Decade
Guy Ritchie's career may be more checkered than a chessboard, but he does have a knack for London lowlife. Back when Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels first came out – ten years ago last week – one of his producers went so far as to imply he was a bit of a villain himself. When I reported it to Ritchie, he blushed. It might not be true, he admitted.
In fact he wasn't even working class. His dad had worked in advertising – Alan Parker and David Puttnam had been there or thereabouts when Ritchie was growing up, so he was connected too. Armed with his GCSE in Film – he claimed he was the first to earn that qualification – he started out as a runner, found his way to making pop videos (mostly for German rave bands), and finally put together enough private financing to shoot his own script for a larky British crime caper.
It's fair to say Lock, Stock wasn't embraced by the British film establishment. In fact no local distributor would touch it until the boss at PolyGram thought it would be worth a punt. An endorsement from Tom Cruise certainly helped ("This movie rocks!"). Even then, the company wasn't too sure what to do with it: it was raw, rough and ready entertainment, but it wasn't realism, and the rogue-ish tone rubbed some people up the wrong way. I remember Ritchie told me the BBFC would have given it a 25-Certificate if they could.
Personally, I thought the movie was a bit too eager, and most of Ritchie's tricks were secondhand – he owed a lot to Scorsese, to the Coen brothers, and to Tarantino – but then again, it was thoroughly British in the pic-n-mix of styles, stereotypes, and rude, cockney comic energy. Ritchie has the gift of the gab – there are people who can quote reams of his dialogue without pausing for breath – and he has real eye for offbeat casting: Vinnie Jones as Big Chris was a masterstroke (and putting him with young Little Chris was the coup de grace). Jason Statham was a model before Ritchie brought out his inner action hero.
PH Moriarty (Hatchet Harry) and Alan Ford (who narrated this film and went on to play Brick Top in Snatch were both from The Long Good Friday, another key influence, but Lenny McLean (Barry the Baptist) was the real deal, a bare knuckle boxer who Ritchie spotted working as a bouncer and vowed to put in a movie – tracking him down through the club a couple of years later when that dream became a reality.
Snatch was more of the same, sure, but it takes more than front to cast Brad Pitt as an incomprehensible and virtually unrecognizable scraggle-faced mischief-maker (the casting of Benicio del Toro as Franky Four Fingers and Dennis Farina as Avi is equally adept). This was Stephen Graham's first feature film too – six years before he won rave reviews as Combo in Shane Meadows' This Is England.
Daylight Robbery director Paris Leonti is quite right to point out (as he did recently) that Ritchie trades in caricature, but then so does Mike Leigh. When he gets it right, there is boisterous, larger than life quality to Ritchie's films that is genuinely entertaining (much more so than Daylight Robbery, probably).
Precious little of this vernacular flavour survives in the aptly named Swept Away. It's easy to blame the wife, but Ritchie really did seem all at sea away from his native stomping ground. And Revolver was as bad, maybe worse, for its mad pretensions and its mid-Atlantic no man's land setting (it was shot on the Isle of Mann, which is never a good start). Not to mention the abysmal but tragically unforgettable sight of Ray Liotta screaming "Fear Me" in his undies. Be afraid. Be very afraid.For these reasons, if for no better, it's a relief to find Ritchie back on home turf and apparently enjoying himself in RocknRolla, another tale of double-crossing London crims up to no good, and featuring scene-stealing work from newcomers like Tom Hardy and Toby Kebbell alongside established stars Gerard Butler and Tom Wilkinson. Ritchie's suffered his share of hard knocks recently, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt about his next project, Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr is attached to star. Hardly elementary casting, but it might just work. Then, again, judging by the rest of Ritchie's work, the more important question may be, who is playing the villain?
The RocknRolla Hall of British Hard Men
It's a cliché that Hollywood like to cast Brits as the bad guys – probably something to do with history and our national gift for condescension. But we can produce genuine hard men too. It would be a brave man who took on this little lot:
"You're a big man but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself."
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