When we think of Guy Ritchie movies, what springs to mind? “Dags,” caravans and, most likely, dead bodies being devoured by pigs. When a relatively unknown Ritchie burst onto the British film scene in 1998 with his low-budget Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, it took everyone a little by surprise – never before had we seen such gritty humour from a British gangster film.
With colourful characters, fast-paced action and confusing yet memorable interweaving story lines, Lock, Stock quickly gained a cult following. But was Guy Ritchie truly a revolutionary? Or was his style of quick-cut filmmaking a natural progression from the work of other directors in the 1990s?
Either way, the most interesting thing about Guy Ritchie’s films is how distinctive they are – you can spot one from a million miles away. Motifs like the use of bare-knuckle boxing became a trademark of Guy Ritchie’s early films. Although we’re seeing it less and less from him in his latest offerings, both Lock, Stock and Snatch (2000) used this to incredible effect. The brutality of these scenes fit perfectly with Ritchie’s style – and Brad Pitt’s Mickey O’Neil has become a beloved character mostly for his unpredictable knock-out punch.
O’Neil is typical of another aspect of Ritchie’s films that makes them so recognisable: colourful, quirky characters. Let’s face it: if anyone ever quotes Snatch, they’re almost definitely going to be asking you if you like “dags.” And it’s not because O’Neil is the main character of the film, because he’s not – it’s because his character is ridiculous, his fake Irish accent so exaggerated and comedic that it immediately makes him iconic. But arguably this isn’t something that was revolutionary on Guy Ritchie’s part.
If previously gangster movies had been muted colours and hushed conversations in smoky speakeasies, Quentin Tarantino shook this up and threw a can of red paint over it. With Pulp Fiction in 1994, Quentin Tarantino quickly became a household name and his style found itself copied everywhere. Ultra-violent, with witty dialogue and multiple interconnected plot lines, Tarantino’s alternative take on filmmaking took audiences by surprise – and it quickly became clear that Tarantino’s style was a new hybrid, one that people liked and was clearly here to stay.
Not only this, but Tarantino has given us some of the most memorable characters of all time. No one will forget the classic double act that is Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. Charismatic and funny despite being the worst hitman of all time (seriously, he’s pretty incompetent), Vincent Vega instantly became an audience favourite. And this bumbling incompetence is inherent in Guy Ritchie’s films – pretty much every character in Lock, Stock is a “wannabe” gangster, and, in this respect, is somewhat reminiscent of Pulp Fiction four years prior.
But possibly the most recognisable device that Guy Ritchie deploys in his films are the complicated and interconnected plot lines. This is something that’s now used increasingly as filmmaking becomes more complex. But an early memorable use in British film was when Trainspotting hit our cinema screens in 1996 – okay, while Trainspotting clearly isn’t a gangster film, it was an important benchmark in terms of filmmaking, especially when you look at how Boyle’s direction might have influenced Guy Ritchie’s own style.
Boyle’s films revel in the surreal. Trainspotting used freeze-frames as an opportunity to describe sections of the story that weren’t inherent to the action, and to offer context – the very opening scene, for example, where Renton (Ewan McGregor) almost gets run over by the car as he evades the police.
It’s that “how did I get here?” moment, something that is rampant in Guy Ritchie’s films. In this respect, it’s hard to say that Ritchie got there first when Boyle was using the device two years prior to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Like Trainspotting, not only are Guy Ritchie’s plots incredibly complex with a lot of characters, most of whom aren’t important to the overall story, but he uses these freeze-frames and that quick-cutting style to describe important parts of the story that he doesn’t necessarily want to show on film. For example, the opening sequence of RocknRolla (2008) builds context without being inherent to the overall plot.
Now that we’ve explored Ritchie’s influences, let’s have a look at how his films fit into the grander scheme of things. As previously mentioned, one way in which films are developing are that plot lines are becoming increasingly complex as audiences strive for films that are completely different from anything they’ve seen before.
So, if we follow the line that Guy Ritchie was influenced by filmmakers such as Danny Boyle and Quentin Tarantino, Ritchie arguably went on to influence the likes of Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay; most notably by having characters break the fourth wall, or using voiceovers to add context to a complicated story. In The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Leonardo DiCaprio spends a lot of the film breaking the fourth wall to discuss more complicated aspects of the plot. Another recent example would be The Big Short (2015) – a film that attempts to explain the financial crash of 2008. Adam McKay uses the breakage of the fourth wall to describe the more complicated aspects of the plot, and it works brilliantly.
But while Guy Ritchie’s films are iconic, they can’t really be called revolutionary. The techniques he frequently uses first found popularity through new and prolific directors such as Quentin Tarantino in the early 1990s, and were later adapted and perfected by Ritchie. It was a natural progression allowed by advances in filming techniques and technology – essentially, Ritchie took a standard genre, weaved the storylines to build interest and then put a British spin on it. Lest we forget, it was Ritchie that gave Jason Statham in his breakout role in Lock, Stock in 1998.
In recent years Ritchie has moved away from his roots to become more of a crowdpleaser with his Sherlock Holmes franchise and 2015’s The Man from UNCLE. It’s undeniable that his films were iconic, but there was a natural progression to them, and something that he as a director will continue to build on. Maybe Guy Ritchie wasn’t a revolutionary – but he was certainly an important link in the evolutionary chain of cinema.