Guy Ritchie didn’t attend a prestigious film school, or become an understudy of a famous filmmaker to home his craft. Instead, he has worked his way up from the bottom, literally. He dropped out of secondary school and took a low paying job for a film studio. Over time he made commercials and short films. People liked what they saw, and when he came up with the idea for a feature length film, he was able to raise the money he needed for production. That film became Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), which was well received, and eventually became an international hit. His follow-up was Snatch, which followed a similar premise, but got an added boost from being studio-backed instead of independently produced. Snatch (2000) was also well received and profitable. His next film was a romantic comedy which starred his wife at the time, Madonna. That film, Swept Away (2002) was big departure from his strengths. As a result, it was a monumental failure, and for the sake of this article we’re going to pretend that it doesn’t exist. In 2005, Ritchie attempted to return to his crime film roots with Revolver, but his attempts at changing it up resulted in terrible reviews and a box office bomb. Ritchie had a return to form of sorts with 2008’s RocknRolla, which received mixed reviews, but ended up being profitable. Next, Ritchie began a big-budget franchise, starting with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). Both films received moderate to good reviews and became box office hits. Ritchie’s latest film The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is in theaters now.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Guy Ritchie film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Guy Ritchie’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Guy Ritchie injects his films with hard-hitting fast-moving action sequences. They are hard-hitting because they are not only violent and bloody, but typically involve hand-to-hand combat. Characters frequently fight each other without resorting to guns, and those sequences are often choreographed much like martial arts. Bare-fisted boxing is a great example of something that Guy Ritchie uses to make his films more visceral, occurring in both Snatch and Sherlock Holmes. His action scenes are fast-moving and full of energy because of the way they are filmed. Sometimes Ritchie uses high-speed photography to slow things down at critical moments to create more of an impact, as seen in both of the Sherlock Holmes movies. In Revolver during Sorter’s shoot-out scene, Ritchie uses a bunch of wipes to represent characters in various rooms and floors all involved in the same shootout. This technique simplifies the sequence and makes it move smoothly while highlighting the importance of the Sorter. He uses editing tricks during some of the action moments in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., as well, in order to show the actions of the two protagonists concurrently.
Quick Jump Cut Sequences
Quick cuts allow Ritchie to show a character performing an action that may not be that important to the plot, but is useful for building context or to help the audience better understand the character. The opening to RocknRolla is a great example. The narrator is explaining what might drive a person to live their life as a “RocknRolla”. Sex, drugs, thrills. Then it shows all of those things in quick succession before presenting the title card. Ritchie uses quick jump sequences like a montage too, to show characters preparing for an event or to explain the passage of time. In Revolver, during the scene where “The Formula” is explained, there are quick cuts to the past when the words that are dictated are being written down. It works as almost a concurrent flashback, explaining a complicated idea to the audience while also showing where that idea originated.
Circular and Interconnected Plots
Ritchie’s films take their audiences hostage. They tend to be more about the experience than the destination. Ritchie ignores a traditional exposition, instead starting mid-stride and begging the audience to catch up. His plots tread on familiar territory, often having moments that loop back in time in order to show a different perspective of an important event that just occurred as an explanation of what happened. The entire plot of Sherlock Holmes is one giant loop. The film starts off with Holmes and Watson successfully completing a case. The result of Holmes’ success ends up leading to an even bigger crisis, which is the focus of the film. At the end, though, Holmes has to explain what really happened during that initial event in order for the audience to fully understand everything else that has happened up to the end. The aftermath of this initial catalyst is what sets up the rest of the film, and in the end, is somehow related to the climax. This is also the case in Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but both of those films feature plots with more than just circular plots. These films feature several sets of characters. The relationships between these groups of characters is what drives the film forward. The film focuses on one group at a time, jumping from one to another when an important event occurs. This weaves a complicated web of connections which ultimately leads to a climax that is related to the beginning of the film.
Guy Ritchie’s films are full of vibrant and memorable characters. There is rarely, if ever anyone, who you could consider normal. It doesn’t matter what side of the law they are on or how low or high in the ranks of the organization that they are. Richie knows how to make interesting energetic characters, and they are the heart of his films. From the dumb group of robbers to the short-tempered crime boss “Hatchet” Harry in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, to the fast-witted and egotistical portrayal of the most famous detective of all time by Robert Downey Jr. in the two Sherlock Holmes films. In Revolver, the main characters are representative of themes and perspectives of the ego. In Snatch, the most memorable character is probably Brad Pitt’s Mickey O’Neil, a hot-headed Irish boxer who is purposefully difficult to understand in an almost comical way.
By tinting his films certain colors, Ritchie can create a tone. The opening setting that takes place in Berlin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is dark and faded, which makes it feel cold and unfriendly. Indeed, this is a good representation of the relationship between the US and Soviet Union at that time, which helps to make the actions of Napoleon Solo in that scene seem that much more impressive. Ritchie often uses colored overlays to differentiate between different settings. In Game of Shadows Ritchie uses a blue color for the setting of the final showdown at the peace summit in Switzerland. The blue color is meant to differentiate this place from the other settings in the film. Once again the tone is cold, much like the relationship between the two adversaries. He also uses dim lighting throughout, especially the chess match as a literal interpretation of the film’s title. Flashbacks especially tend to use different color sets than the main timeline in order for the audience to easily see the difference and understand the transition. This is the case in Revolver during the aforementioned scene involving the explanation of “the formula”.
Want more Guy Ritchie? Check out this review of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The last installment of Directors’ Trademarks: