In Defense of Guy Ritchie
Let me preface this piece a little sheepishly by saying that I have not yet seen Aladdin so I very well could be making a giant U-turn on this argument should that film be as mad as we’re all dreading it could be. But hey, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t sink my Guy Ritchie apologist tendencies. Hell, even Swept Away couldn’t manage that (although it came perilously close). So, while I still have the nerve to do so, here is my argument in favour of the works and directorial style of Guy Ritchie.
Guy Ritchie is incredibly easy to mock and dismiss, both as a director and a public figure. He’s the upper middle class son of a literal Lady who went to private school but whose creative persona is that of a tough bloke from the streets. He was Mr. Madonna for several years and directed her in a truly awful movie, then made a vaguely Kabbalah inspired thriller that was a public joke for many years. His films are mega stylish and maybe a tad stupider than he believes them to be. He’s even got a Razzie on his shelf (or more likely in a skip somewhere). There are some British directors it’s cool to like, those whose distinctive style and prestigious approach to the craft make them worthy of cultural analysis. Ritchie doesn’t get included in those conversations very often. Now, with Aladdin getting reviews that range from ‘eh’ to ‘honestly not as bad as I thought it would be’, that narrative seems unlikely to change. So allow me to be his one far too enthusiastic cheerleader, the one person who watched King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and thought, ‘Actually I quite liked that and will watch it again.’ And reader, I did. Many times.
Ritchie at his best is often accused of prizing style over substance, as if there is no storytelling weight or worth to such elements beyond their aesthetically pleasing nature. He has always worked best in heightened realities, be it the frenetic neo-realism of Cockney London or a GQ photoshoot ready version of 1960s retro glamour. Even in the slickest of environments, Ritchie creates layers of lived-in emotion. His Sherlock Holmes movies get a lot of flack for their hyper-kinetic action scenes, such as Sherlock’s mental breakdown of how he’s going to beat his boxing opponent move by move before he even makes the first strike. In fairness, it is ripe for parody, but that doesn’t take away from the sheer visceral thrill of those moments. It’s in that balance between the precise and the bombastic that Ritchie has found his niche, with super specific takes on well-trodden territory, be it London hard-men or literature’s most refined detective.
Ritchie’s breakout was 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a crime comedy that introduced the world to a former diver named Jason Statham. Everything that defines Ritchie as a director is here: The scrappy dialogue, the music video acrobatic editing, the propulsive plotting that sees no point in stopping for breath, and a world of grimy style that’s just one step into the unreal. It’s a Cockney gangster movie that’s delighted by its own coolness - something else he is heavily criticized for - but it’s also self-aware enough to know that these posing doofuses, as lovable as they can be, are utterly ridiculous. They are not above being mocked or treated like caricatures, which is helped by the fact that they all live in worlds that are a tad too much in the best way possible.
As much as he is defined by his London hard man movies about crimes and punching, perhaps Ritchie’s best films are his Sherlock Holmes duology, which are… about London hard men, crimes and punching. When he was announced as the director of a new Holmes film, to star Robert Downey Jr. in the leading role, most of the responses were somewhere between confusion and outright indignation. How could the guy that made Revolver, which not even I am daft enough to defend, get his hands on this beloved material? There was a weird element of classism to the idea of him making a ‘dumbed down’ mainstream action movie from the Holmes story (which is silly because Ritchie is so not working class), but a lot of those attitudes forget that Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are unashamedly pulp entertainment for the masses. So why not make a movie like that and why not give it to the guy (no pun intended) who knows how to have a good time?
Sherlock Holmes and its far superior sequel Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows are much more faithful to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s stories than they get credit for. Over-the-top, bombastic, affectionate, and utterly unconcerned with subtlety, the tales and their iconic protagonists prove to be perfect partners for Ritchie and the things he does best. This is less a depiction of Victorian London than it is a lovingly detailed version of that era as imagined by people who read too much Conan Doyle and Penny Dreadful stories. Something is always happening and Sherlock is always ahead of the game. In his wonderful video essay on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Scout Tafoya notes the film’s blending of futurism and Soviet montage. Ritchie also gives audiences a Holmes who is flippant but not crushed by the weight of his own ego. Rather, he quite likes showing off and isn’t too concerned with everyone around him telling him to cool off. He’s the most ‘jealous ex-boyfriend of Watson’ version of the character we’ve seen since The Great Mouse Detective, a dynamic helped greatly by Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s excellent chemistry. This is a bro-off without the pesky toxicity.
All of those elements are pushed to the forefront in the sinfully underrated and perennial Pajiba favourite that is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. We could write about this film every day until the world burns and it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me. The film is a well-oiled machine with every cog doing its job marvellously. It’s a throwback to the TV series itself, but also an entire genre of spy thrillers that was probably never as cool as our nostalgia goggles remember it being. Not even James Bond was this effortlessly suave. Sure, this thing has a plot, but the main concern is allowing extremely charismatic people to be more charming than you could ever hope to be, all while dressed in the era’s finest fashion. Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo is so ridiculously appealing as a leading man that you wonder if the DC films vacuumed out his personality before shouting ‘Action’, and his chemistry with Armie Hammer is a blissful balance of antagonism, wit, and grudging respect. Imagine Mission: Impossible with all the pastiche of the ’60s (right down to the jazz flutes filled score) combined with the ever so modern flair that Guy Ritchie’s always gloried in. At a time when so many of the most prominent blockbusters of the decade rely on the same basket of tricks for their action scenes, Ritchie never slouches on delivering dynamic set pieces that take full advantage of everything the camera, the editing booth, and practical stunts have to offer (the CGI is nowhere near as overwhelming as it’s often accused of being). The opening fifteen minutes are some of the best moments seen in a big budget blockbuster this century.
Ritchie fails when he’s forbidden from making Guy Ritchie Movies. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is much more enjoyable than it gets credit for, but it’s an undeniable step down when compared to its predecessors, in large part because it’s been forced into the constraints of being a franchise starter in the Marvel mould. When King Arthur is a sh*t-kicking period action movie about a bunch of dudes fighting a sleazeball - Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Excaliburs, if you will - it’s exactly what you want from Ritchie. Sadly, most of the time, it’s a Hollywood origin story, and it’s not worth your time. Ritchie is a nostalgist who knows how to breathe new life into the retro, but all he’s been asked to do here is regurgitate the same tropes to diminishing returns. It’s a shame because he’s probably got a much better King Arthur movie in him, but this is also my big fear for Aladdin. The major issue with Disney’s live-action remakes is that they don’t care to reinvent their classic stories because it doesn’t suit their brand strategy to do so. Instead, directors are tasked with copying, often shot-for-shot, the source material, refreshing it just enough to fix out-of-date politics or characterization. Even if Ritchie weren’t an ill fit for the job of directing Aladdin, it’s tough to see what he could gain from taking on this task. What freedom does it offer for him to do what he does best?
Perhaps he’ll knock it out of the park, or maybe my Guy Ritchie apologist stance will be quietly taken to the shed and put out of its misery. Whatever the case, there is something to be said about Ritchie when he’s firing on all cylinders and how much sheer visceral pleasure there is to be taken in viewing A Guy Ritchie Movie. Come on, you do need another excuse to re-watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
(Gif via Giphy.com)
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