Conventionally speaking, if your violent gangster movie ends with a documentary-style interview of Deepak Chopra discussing the finer points of egocentrism, you've either discovered a groundbreaking new genre or committed creative suicide. Guy Ritchie learned this the hard way when his 2007 (2005 in the UK) heist flick Revolver, a revenge story-cum-philosophical ramble on a conman's self-worth, was overwhelmingly panned by critics and audiences, garnering a paltry 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and leading the great Roger Ebert to request that theater employees fire a gun into the projector rather than show the film in the first place.
To think, this was supposed to be Ritchie's return to form. After delivering the disastrous beach romance Swept Away—starring then-wife Madonna—he set his sights on seemingly comfortable terrain: a crime caper in the Lock Stock and Snatch mold featuring Ritchie favorite Jason Statham as the lead. But when it premiered in 2005 in the UK, the reception was vicious, forcing the British director to re-edit the movie for US audiences.
I'll admit the critical reaction wasn't totally bunk. Revolver can be pretentious, confusing, and solipsistic—but I don't necessarily count these characteristics as faults. They add to the film's intrigue and desire to draw out something deeper than surface-level criminal banter. Revolver, dare I say, is a misunderstood classic. It's a hot mess of a film, but an interesting hot mess, one directed by a man attempting to inject intellect and religious dogma into a genre he excels at.
Let's start with the basic premise. Recently released prisoner Jake Green (Statham, in rare full-hair glory) seeks revenge on mob boss Dorothy Macha (a scene-chewing Ray Liotta) by using a scheme he learned from his former cellmates, a brilliant conman and a master chess player. He ends up siphoning money from Macha, but the plan goes south. Desperate, Jake finds himself in bed with a pair of mysterious loan sharks named Zach (Vincent Pastore) and Avi (Andre 3000), who have agreed to protect him from Macha's assassins in exchange for cash. Simple enough, right? Well, throw your tinfoil hats on, because shit's about to get weird.
Forty-five minutes into Revolver, the characters start having long, drawn-out discussions on the human id and self-worth and how ego can screw with everything in your life. The mantra Jake has been repeating the entire movie––"You can only get smarter by playing a smarter opponent"––begins to infect everything he touches, as he finds himself screaming into the void in an attempt to tame his ego. Liotta's Macha is in a similar battle: When he's not yelling at subordinates or standing bare-assed in his tanning room suite, he's fighting his strong emotional impulses.
The plot soon becomes a game of Olympic-level mental gymnastics where you're trying to decide who's conning whom. Is the mob boss tricking the convict? The convict tricking his so-called partners? "Every game and con, there is always an opponent and there's always a victim," Jake says to himself, in between chess bouts with Andre 3000's Avi. (For the record, 3 Stacks' presence alone should have raised the Rotten Tomatoes score at least another 40 points.)
Ritchie poses these riddles to the viewers without answers. This likely pissed off a good portion of his audience but the confusion is the point. The characters are having internal struggles, and instead of burying them, Ritchie floats them to the surface via chess metaphors, using the characters themselves as pieces and the city they inhabit as the board.
This attempt at a deeper narrative led some viewers to believe that the film itself was secretly about Kabbalah, the sect of Judaism his former spouse Madonna adheres to. The couple was tabloid fodder at the time, particularly in England, so it wasn't much of a stretch to assume Ritchie was planting Kabbalistic messages into the story. Which … I don't know, maybe he was? According to my limited understanding of the religion, one facet of Kabbalah is the struggle with your ego and the attempt to transfer selfish ways of receiving into an attitude of giving –– a path that mirrors the one that Jake takes in the movie. (Ritchie himself has repeatedly maintained that Revolver has nothing to do with Kabbalah.)
These intellectual tactics are overdone but engrossing, particularly when you combine them with the film's visual flair. There's a delightful Kill Bill-esque meta-anime that pops up in the middle of the movie, as well as stylized gun battles featuring heroic assassin Sorter (played by the always reliable Mark Strong). These moments are Ritchie at his best: intricate, multi-layered sequences that manage to be both humorous and breathtakingly violent.
Despite the critical drubbing it received, Guy Ritchie is still bullish about Revolver, hanging his hat on its confusing tendencies and shiny fight scenes. "'I don't think anything went wrong with Revolver," he told the Observer in 2008. "By its very nature it's an esoteric movie. It's not designed for the masses… It was the film I wanted to make –– and it is actually the film I like the most… RocknRolla's easy. Revolver isn't easy.'"
Typically, claiming your film is too mysterious for the haters to understand is a cop-out. But 10 years after its release, I still find myself drawn to Revolver and all its wonders and faults, puzzles and pomposity. In reading past interviews with Ritchie while writing this piece, that seems to be exactly what the director was shooting for––and he managed to accomplish it by following a rule of Statham's Jake Green: "The one thing I've learned about experts, they're experts on fuck all. If there's a rule, you can bend it. If there's a law, it can be broken."
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