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Friday, June 6, 2008
Ritchie reaches for sky and fails
Defying the laws of nature is rarely a good idea. Just look at genetically-modified food. Learned people assure us that it's perfectly safe, but consumers all around the globe refuse to buy. This is no mystery. On some deep, instinctive level, the idea of splicing, say, a fish gene into a plant, just doesn't seem right.
The same is true in the world of film. Take British director Guy Ritchie's latest, "Revolver." Ritchie attempts to splice "Ocean's 11" with "Fight Club" and "The Matrix," and sure enough, it just ain't right.
Ritchie is known for gangster flicks, wicked, post-Tarantino excursions in slam-bang, hardboiled irony such as "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels." After marrying Madonna, however, the director's career went off the rails with a vanity flick for his wife, "Swept Away." With "Revolver," Ritchie seems to be returning to what worked before, namely gangsters. In fact, if you see the trailer for "Revolver," you'd be convinced it's another flick in the style of "Lock, Stock."
But you'd be wrong; this time Ritchie aspires to making a metaphysical heist flick, as if someone dropped a tab of acid in Stephen Soderbergh's coffee when he arrived on set for one of those "Ocean's" movies. So we get casinos, cool criminals and cons, but also sudden shifts into animation, surreal set design, and dialogue between the lead character and a voice in his head telling him, "Don't let them turn yourself against you." Did I mention the imaginary Zen loan sharks?
In an age of bland blockbusters, one can't really fault Ritchie for trying something different — and "Revolver" is the very definition of "different" — but the concept just seems off from the start. The "Ocean's" series is all lite, playful, and pointless; the "Matrix" series on the other hand, is ponderous, vaguely profound, and hooked on ontology, a word that Danny Ocean would greet with a raised eyebrow and a cocktail: "Reality is in the glass, pal. Right inside the olive."
The plot of "Revolver" is pure "Ocean's." Jake Green (Jason Statham, star of the "Transporter" series) is a gambler and all-around hard-man who's just out of jail with a big grudge against his former boss, Mr. D. (Ray Liotta), a casino owner with an army of evil peons. Green kept his mouth shut for Mr. D's sake and did seven years in solitary, and now he wants some payback. Mr. D is less inclined to reward Green than whack him, the simpler and cheaper option by far. Fastidious assassin Sorter (Mark Strong), who looks like an especially anal-retentive accountant, is ordered to take out Green.
Sorter is foiled in his attempt when Green is rescued by Avi and Zack (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore), a pair of loan sharks with a philosophical bent. These two inform Green that he's suffering from a soon-to-be-fatal illness (can you see the plot having to stretch already?), but will help him take down Mr. D if he gives them all his stashed-away cash and becomes their lackey. Green suspects a con, but goes along when the illness appears to be real. The con, however, is bigger than he can imagine . . .
The essence of a good heist flick is you can groove on the precision, enjoy the clever machinations as each piece of the plot switches perfectly to the next gear. Yet in "Revolver," as one character puts it, we get "the gear that doesn't exist." All the plotting goes right out the window as we hit a "Fight Club" level of stop making sense.
And yet, I got "Fight Club." "Revolver" just left me wondering what the hell is going on. There's some kind of mumbo-jumbo involving two guys Green may or may not have met in prison, a chess master and a brilliant con man, who taught Green the abstract secret to the ultimate con. Together with a lot of terse quotes from people such as Machiavelli and Julius Caesar, the film aims to be profound, but winds up perplexing.
Far better is the film's vibe. "Revolver" was produced by Luc Besson, and Ritchie's slick, lush visual style seems to be a clear homage to the "cinema de look" of Besson and fellow French director Jean-Jacques Beineix in the early '80s. Not since "Heat" has there been a heist flick that looked so beautiful from shot to shot. Ritchie also gets a lot of mileage from the slow-burning, big-beat score by Nathaniel Mechaly. When it all comes together — as in a brilliant scene in which a triad assassin tries to take out Mr. D in a crowded restaurant — it seems like pure genius.
Ultimately, Ritchie can't decide whether he's making an art flick or a heist flick, and hedges his bets both ways. Perhaps the ultimate con is on the viewer trying to make sense of it all.