Light spoilers for Revolver are ahead. But with a movie as weird as this, what even is a “spoiler”?
In 2007, filmmaker Guy Ritchie released Revolver to American audiences, two years after its 2005 European release. On its surface, it looks to be squarely in line with his previous instant cult classic crime-comedies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Like those two, it stars Jason Statham as a gritty, hard-talking criminal mastermind, this time squared up against corrupt casino boss Ray Liotta alongside the eclectic team of André Benjamin and Vincent Pastore. Heists, assassins, double-crosses, deliciously decadent dialogue, aggressively stylized sequence construction: This is all Ritchie on a silver platter, right? Yes, kind of. But also, definitively, not at all. Revolver is designed to be a deconstruction of Ritchie’s previous interests, an examination of the ticking mechanisms of his characters both aggressively micro and pretentiously macro, a dazzling, sometimes confusing explosion of formal experimentation that feels only rarely like any other images he’s ever produced. It is, upon modern watch, a bonkers piece of genre cinema gold, an avant-garde film noir boiling with electric filmmaking, an ahead-of-its-time gem. And, of course, everyone hated it.
Upon release, it scored an abysmal 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics agreeing it’s too rife with pretentious musings and incoherent meanderings to make any sense. In an eviscerating half-star review, Roger Ebert called it “a frothing mad film that thrashes against its very sprocket holes in an attempt to bash its brains out against the projector.” I agree with Ebert — I just think this quality speaks to Revolver’s strengths, not detriments. The film’s narrative, co-written by Ritchie and fellow European genre auteur Luc Besson, starts with a simple enough engine, one that feels in dialogue with classic film noir. It’s even got a grim-voiceovering protagonist: Jake Green (Statham) just got out of prison after seven years in solitary confinement, stuck in a cell between an enigmatic, anonymous con man and an enigmatic, anonymous chess master (filmed intriguingly out of focus). How’d he get there? By protecting Dorothy Macha (Liotta, fiercely committed), a gambling boss, after taking the fall for a series of card games Jake cheated during. And what’s he gonna do now that he’s out? Why, get his revenge, of course — just a little under duress from the dynamic criminal duo Avi and Zach (Benjamin and Pastore). Together, the trio enact heists, shake down folks who own money, and wax about Jake’s ability to hack any system by treating it as a “game” with a simple set of rules. Follow the rules, defeat your enemy, win the “game.”
Without revealing any of the many, many twists at the center (and edges, and literally the entire frame) of Revolver — partially because I want you to experience their madness for yourself, partially because I’m literally not sure I understand them — it’s clear that Ritchie is mostly interested in this basic genre plot as the means to his ends. What ends? To paraphrase Ebert, I think he’s interested in bashing his characters’ brains out against the projector. Ritchie flings not just Statham’s tortured protagonist, but folks on the fringe like Liotta as an image-obsessed coward at heart, Mark Strong as an awkwardly determined assassin with an awkwardly determined wig, and Tom Wu as secret MVP Lord John through the philosophical ringer (one monologue he gives in the film deserves every Oscar from now on, for every category). These folks are capital C Conflicted, gripping and griping with their sins, sometimes speaking literally with their interior monologues. Or are they? Again, as lightly as I can tread, Ritchie dives into dissective areas previously visited by works like Fight Club, and hints at a fundamental core later explored by works like BioShock. Lines like “Don’t like to feel trapped. Never did, never will. Why should a man do what a man doesn’t want to do?” feel ironically appropriate nearly the moment they’re spoken. Statham’s character (er, by this point, it’s actually the manifestation of his ego? I think??) even tries the old Fight Club “shoot your alter ego by shooting yourself” technique before sardonically revealing it fully won’t work. Free will, the enemies within, life is just a game of chess, fringe quantum mechanics are real, numerology is everywhere, Sigmund Freud was 100% right — all of these loaded ideas and more are smushed into Revolver’s narrative. Thankfully, it never feels slow or boring, even when it becomes didactic by design.
And that’s because Ritchie, with clutch DP Tim Maurice Jones and clutch editors James Herbert, Ian Differ, and Romesh Aluwihare, has never created such a bold, invigorating, intoxicatingly experimental formal palette like this one before. The craft on this sucker is equal parts exquisitely controlled and completely driven by whim. Color temperatures are chosen with performative purpose, particularly the warm Renaissance art hues of Liotta’s world contrasted with the grimy coolness of Statham’s (however, both characters have a common color in blue, with Liotta constantly tanning under a bed’s blue glow, and Statham reaching his moment of lowness in a blue, busted elevator). Sequences are constantly, aggressively cross-cut onto each other, with timelines folding and pieces of dialogue paralleling — many familiar-on-first-glance heist and assassination sequences, so simply rendered by other filmmakers, ascend to a near-mythic plane thanks to Ritchie’s usage of these techniques. Characters speak to each other in immaculately framed, patient shot-reverse-shot sequences within a wider-than-usual 2.39:1 aspect ratio mere seconds before characters erupt into strangely cel-shaded CG animations where their body parts turn into guns to properly communicate their operatic frustrations. And somehow, these delirious choices work, propelling Revolver onto its own wackadoo wavelength (also, Nicolas Winding Refn owes this film residuals).
I can understand why many folks thought they didn’t work. Notable American action movies in 2007 include: Transformers, 300, Spider-Man 3, Hot Fuzz, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Live Free or Die Hard, and Rush Hour 3. While some of these films experiment with what we expect from action cinema (Spider-Man 3’s jazz dance), they at least feature consistency in their visual language (300’s slow-mo, Transformers’ teal-and-orange mayhem), well-established tropes poked at in their easily palatable comedy beats (Hot Fuzz, Rush Hour 3), and grammar previously established by predecessors (Pirates, Die Hard). Absolutely none of these come close to the wonky depths of Revolver’s formalism, narrative construction, or interest in eradicating audience expectation. The closest 2007 action flicks to Revolver’s wavelength might be Smokin’ Aces or Shoot ‘Em Up, but even those are more indebted to Ritchie’s previous works and formal tics than Ritchie’s new explorations in Revolver. 2007 just wasn’t ready for the thing. But, if Revolver was produced now as a prestige TV genre drama — a Legion, if you will — it would be showered with praise and swimming in awards.
If you don’t like Revolver, I completely understand. With its trickery in filmmaking and screenplay construction — not to mention its comical reliance on quotes throughout the picture, and end-credits interviews with real psychologists — it is absolutely a pretentious watch, the kind of film that feels a little like a college freshman’s party-cornering thought experiment. But in some ways, it might be Ritchie’s purest, most unfiltered film. We even see experiments explored in Revolver refined and revisited in his later, mass-market-ready works — what are Sherlock Holmes’ explanatory fights if not the heightening of Jason Statham’s explanatory chess matches? Unfairly, Ritchie’s Revolver has been continuously viewed as the red-headed stepchild of his oeuvre, the crime flick of his many crime flicks that missed the mark. But maybe Revolver has always been the mark — the strange, shapeshifting, sometimes-maddening mark — and maybe his other films are the misses. To paraphrase one of the many purple pieces of prose in the film, maybe Ritchie finally won the game by embracing the pain — we were just all on the wrong board.