Gangster Goes Arthouse: Revolver

Writer and director Guy Ritchie has gained considerable notoriety for his British cult films of ganster follies Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and its sequel, Snatch. Like American films and television shows centering on New York mafia, Ritchie’s films, too, spawned numerous British gangster cast regulars. His films also offer a refreshing humor that is rarely, if ever, present in the American gangster genre. But most importantly, the gem of these movies is the writing, and some would follow this model of both humorous and tragic ironies, such as the slick drama, Layer Cake (2004). But writer/director Ritchie, teaming up with French director Luc Besson (he holds writing credits here), might surprise audiences expecting their latest work, Revolver, to be something similar to either Ritchie or Besson’s previous films. Instead, much of this film appears to be an experimental effort that might aptly be labeled Gangster Arthouse.

Granted, the movie begins as one loyal to the British gangster genre might already expect. Jason Statham, a leading regular in Ritchie’s movies, is Jake Green. Now with a full beard and head of scraggly long hair, Statham looks rugged, though dressed in crisply tailored suits, his appearance might be considered somewhat biblical at times. As is typical of Stratham’s leading character, or what might be better compared to Daniel Craig’s unnamed character in Layer Cake considering the similarly serious tone, he is reluctantly forced into a situation that is likely to end badly, narrating to audiences all expectations and consequences, whether direct or analogous, as someone well versed in the criminal activities with which he is involved. It is always a game of strategy.

Green is an impeccable card player and for him, gambling is really a hustle and one that’s made him quite wealthy over the years. When challenged to play Dorothy Macha (a well-tanned and droopy-faced Ray Liotta who walks through most of the movie in spandex briefs) who is a horrible poker player that people forfeit their games to out of fear of retaliation, cocky Jake Green not only beats Macha, but insults him relentlessly. As expected, Macha orders a hit on Green and while Green allies himself with two unlikely brothers–Avi (Andre Benjamin of Outkast) and Zach (Vinnie Pastore who is probably most recognizable known for his role in The Sopranos), they are not offering protection out of sheer generosity. Rather, Green is forced to turn over to them all of his money so the trio can become loansharks and most importantly, bring down Macha. And though Macha’s power is contingent on sustaining a feared presence, he has one of his own to worry about: the elusive Mr. Gold, rumors of whom make him sound as relentlessly vicious as Anton Chigur, the villain of No Country for Old Men (2007). “Mr. Gold doesn’t accept excuses and he doesn’t give second chances.”

The leading characters of modern British gangster films have always been dependent on strategy and considering all possible outcomes, whether of their allies or enemies. But, In order to become the strategic mastermind of all the interconnected foes in this film, it will require more than the usual criminal expertise that guided the troubled “good guys” of Lock Stock and Snatch, for example. Now the rules critical to Green’s survival, which means learning an entirely new arena and successfully conning his opponent, derives from one of the oldest games of strategy: chess. He proves to be an expert in the game, but the applying in the real world the rules he frequently uses to defeat even the most masterful opponents will require abandoning a rather large ego, the thing that got him in trouble in the first place. But soon, the game becomes perplexing for Green and things begin to turn into a personal nightmare. Unfortunately, his explanations of the expert deconstruction he taught himself while serving a lengthy sentence of solitary confinement, tend to become lengthy and meld into exhaustive and confusing jargon when presented as fleeting words rather than hard text. A word to the wise: this is not a movie to start from anywhere but the beginning.

While the story follows some of the usual plot arrangements including plenty of slick, mob-styled revenge, both visuals and the narrative encompass avant garde (or, characteristically arthouse) elements. The transition of subtitles present in some of the film might not be considered much of a novelty after what had been done in the remake of Man on Fire. During major action sequences in the middle of the film, live action mixes with a sudden transition to comic book styled animation similar to the Aeon Flux cartoons. When Stratham’s character undergoes self-actualization, the intensity is interrupted with one sentence quotes from the pages of “The Road to Suicide,” something which might fool audiences to expect the credits to roll and accept a frustratingly uncertain conclusion. Much of the cinematography, too, appears rather uncharacteristic for this context. Several scenes are drenched in solid colors of red or blue. And dialog between characters in a car or talking over a game of chess are shot from very low angles. Moreover, as the credits roll (unusually including credit for prop apprentices and metal workers, among others), one might expect that Ritchie or Besson intended the film as an educational effort; an insight into paranoia and schizophrenia as various academics discuss the function of the ego.

But despite some of the experimentation, this, combined with other elements, seems to have angered critics searching for some value in what looks to really be a convoluted and obvious attempt at a psychological thriller, something film critic Roger Ebert might have expressed best in the introduction to his Chicago-Sun Times review:

Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver” is a frothing mad film that thrashes against its very sprocket holes in an attempt to bash its brains out against the projector. It seems designed to punish the audience for buying tickets. It is a “thriller” without thrills, constructed in a meaningless jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards and subtitles and mottos and messages and scenes that are deconstructed, reconstructed and self-destructed. I wanted to signal the projectionist to put a gun to it.”

Another review defended the movie (sorry, lost the link… but will post if found) comparing the genius of the film to having read a book for the first time that would be considered brilliant, but who’s understanding is lost on the first read. Which, in turns sounds like the statement that if you make a movie people don’t understand, they are willing to accept that lack of understanding as a mark of genius. If what is being said can truly be considered something intelligent, if not remarkable, then why must it be done to the point of being exceedingly perplexing where the meaning is lost even on second and third reflection?

Bang, bang.