25 years after the release of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, we look at the essential Guy Ritchie films…
In 1998, Guy Ritchie burst onto the British film scene with his dazzling debut hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then he’s revisited guns and gangsters, adapted a classic spy show, adapted an iconic literary detective, knight and king of the Round Table and rebooted a Disney character. He also made Swept Away, but we won’t go into that.
A now 25-year career has seen plenty of ups and downs for Ritchie, but with that, a tidy selection of cult favourites. Whether you believe him to be a cinematic genius or an overrated magpie pilferer of other people’s ideas, Ritchie’s influence on the British film industry is undeniable with a quarter of a century of inferior copycat films populating the indie film scene. If Die Hard launched a sub-genre, so too did the Ritchie riff fascination which followed Lock, Stock. So let’s take a look at the best idiosyncratic stylings of Britain’s answer to Quentin Tarantino…
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
This low budget crime comedy smashed its way onto the scene. A near-dormant British gangster film genre was suddenly all the rage again thanks to Guy Ritchie, with every aspiring young director trying to blend twisting plotlines, colourful dialogue and exaggerated mockney theatrics. For the most part, the copycats were dire, with the occasional gold nugget, but Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock remained the benchmark and the best of its ilk since the 1980s.
A card shark and his mates pool their money together to enter a high-stakes poker game against London’s most dangerous gangster. Eddie (Nick Moran) loses the game putting himself and his mates (including Jason Statham in his debut film) in debt. So ensues an interloping tale with a comedy of errors as a collection of criminal sorts are unknowingly intertwined and inevitably galloping toward collision.
Great lines, a killer soundtrack and enjoyable performances (with then footballer Vinnie Jones delivering a surprise performance which effectively turned him from sportsman to actor) prove a whale of a time. Ritchie’s unconventional style is at its rawest and most unrefined here, but the film still remains arguably his best and fans can almost quote the entire film verbatim.
Ritchie took everything that worked in Lock, Stock and broadened the scope even further for his next film. He then upped the ante with casting, as a larger budget and his recognition afforded the opportunity to cast Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Benicio del Toro.
Here, Jason Statham cemented his rising stardom in Britain to take the lead role and prove his rugged charm. It would be shortly after that his impressive physical prowess and martial arts ability would be utilised in the Transporter series to kick him into a new direction, but Snatch really was the first proof that he could lead a picture.
The interweaving stories that gravitate around a priceless stolen diamond almost have one strand too many, but the whole cast is in great form and having a great time. Brad Pitt doesn’t just turn up to have an easy walk-on. He’s effortlessly charming as Mickey, the travelling gypsy fighter who causes Statham no end of problems.
Like Lock, Stock, Snatch is full of great lines. The increased budget gives it a bit more of a cinematic gloss and the inclusion of some wider scale set pieces (notably the fist fights). Ritchie also goes wild, playing with camera angles, shutter speeds, movements and then even more whimsical flights of fancy in the edit. Overdone? Maybe so, and it’s often been said Ritchie is style over substance, but the counter is, his style is his substance. It’s inimitably Ritchie.
Guns, drugs, gangsters and chaos abound as Ritchie returned to his bread and butter after misfiring with the film that shall not be mentioned, and the wildly erratic, overly complex, Revolver which is either a misunderstood masterpiece or a shambles depending on who you ask.
RocknRolla never hits the levels of Lock, Stock and Snatch but a star-powered cast always keeps it interesting, including Gerard Butler, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Thandiwe Newton and Mark Strong. Many of the big names here were just building up to their breakout roles elsewhere and there’s perhaps a certain value that Ritchie can squeeze out of a cast that another five years later, might have been too expensive. That said, Toby Kebbell, relatively unknown at the time, really steals the show here.
This follows the familiar pattern of slowly linking these divergent threads together and more so than Ritchie’s predecessors, this one probably has a few weaker subplots and characters, but still, it all ties together well enough. The lack of more distinct MacGuffins like guns, cold hard cash or diamonds, replaced by real estate scams, probably holds this one back a little. Still, a lot of fun is to be had though, albeit somewhat safe.
Guy Ritchie’s first clear dive away from British cinema to the land of Hollywood blockbusters wasn’t a complete jump into the unknown but still somewhat surprising. He was adapting a well-known and loved literary character, in a film set in Victorian Britain, with an A-list American actor as the quintessentially British character.
Robert Downey Jr.’s phoenix rise from an ashen career, thanks to Iron Man, was cemented by a string of tentpole pictures including Sherlock Holmes. Partnered with Jude Law as Watson, it’s a very distinctly Ritchie take on the iconic Detective. This Holmes is played as socially gauche, quirky and as well travelled and educated as the source. Further, this action-heavy spectacle has Holmes as an expert in martial arts. Ritchie lenses and edits the whole thing with his typically excessive hand, but it differentiates this incarnation of the Doyle Detective from the dryer adaptations film and TV has been used to.
It’s light-hearted and what you might call a good old romp. Downey Jr. is great, and ably assisted by Jude Law. Fans of murder mystery and whodunnit cinema probably won’t find the film’s case as intricately stitched as they may want, but generally, fans enjoyed this action-centric Holmes tale. The sequel was much the same and still worth a watch.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Ritchie’s clout was helped by his Sherlock success. He was then tasked with helming a big-budget adaptation of the 60s spy classic, The Man From U.N.C.LE. Partnering with another comic book actor, this time the (latest) man of steel himself, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.
We’ve had rumours of the next James Bond for years now. At a point when Daniel Craig looked bored of it and wanted to jump ship (before doing Spectre and No Time To Die), one of many rumoured successors was Cavill. If a guy who played Superman was going to be a tough choice (because historically, Bond usually casts someone of lesser fame than a man of steel), then casting a star also known for a Spy IP like U.N.C.L.E., was probably impossible. As it is, Ritchie’s enjoyably old-fashioned Spy lark, which still contains a number of his stylistic flourishes (for better or worse) is a lot of fun. It’s a nice throwback that nails the classic Bond tropes better than the tail end of Craig’s era did with Bond proper.
Cavill is charismatic and cool and Hammer bounces off him well. I won’t say he adds bite to his role, but he kind of does. There’s an ace (of course) supporting cast and in many ways, it lays out a good blueprint of what the Bond franchise could return to. It’s also got a style and cool that belies the rough raggedness of Craig’s Bond, definitely stroking the nostalgia bone.
Ritchie’s big-budget Hollywood films were a little bit of a mixed bag. The whole live-action rebooting of well-loved animated Disney classics has been contentious but financially lucrative. Ritchie’s Aladdin was a definite success for the coffers but left audiences a little cold. His King Arthur adaptation was another large-scale attempt at turning the Arthurian legend into tentpole blockbuster material, but another failure (critically and commercially).
Ritchie’s stalwart fans felt something was long overdue and that was a return to the gangster cinema that launched him. He did just that, delivering his most refined and restrained (but no less stylish) take on the genre with The Gentleman. Once again, it’s a web of interlinking plots and characters which all circulate back to the centre. Matthew McConaughey is the prize Hollywood lead delivering a stellar performance, bolstered by a brilliant supporting cast of Colin Farrell, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding and a somewhat revelatory Hugh Grant.
As per usual, depending on your taste, the dialogue is playful and engaging (or it’s excessively wordy if Ritchie/QT ain’t your bag). Above all though, what never escapes Ritchie’s crime comedy cinema is the overriding sense that his cast is revelling in these films. They exude a sense of communal fun and good spirit, and largely cohesive chemistry where antagonists bounce off each other nicely. There’s an argument, increasingly confirmed by repeat viewings, that The Gentlemen could be his best work. Though for me, it’s a close bronze runner up behind his first two films.
What is your favourite Guy Ritchie film? Are you looking forward to seeing Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.