Ritchie Returns to Formula

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The New York Sun

Guy Ritchie single-handedly revived cockney cool with “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Then he remade Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away” as a star vehicle for the missus (Madonna), and it turned out to be such box-office and critical driftwood that it went straight to video in Mr. Ritchie’s native England. One would have hoped that he learned his lesson and returned to his forte. But despite all the con men, thugs, assassins, guns, and drugs at play, “Revolver” is something else entirely. The fact that it opened in Britain more than two years ago does not bode well for its American release.

Jake Green (Jason Statham) has spent seven years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, and his neighbors on the cellblock are a top con and a chess grand master. Without ever meeting him face to face, they take him under their wing. Once he’s released, Jake unleashes the bag of tricks he learned in the joint to exact revenge on casino boss Dorothy Macha (Ray Liotta). Just as Macha duly orders a hit on Jake, two riddling loan sharks (André Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) indenture Jake with the promise of prolonging his life.

Everything sounds good, except “Revolver” couldn’t care less about answering its own internal questions, such as who, why, what’s real, or what’s going on. It hopes to solve a bigger mystery — one that the Material Mom sang about in “Like a Prayer” — the mystery of life itself. Mr. Ritchie dilutes his snazzy action set pieces with metaphysical symbolism and aphorisms from “Julius Caesar,” “The Fundamentals of Chess,” “The Book of Suicide,” and other mismatched texts to convey some big ideas about the ego. In other words, you’re your own worst enemy. As if mindful of the fact that the dots don’t connect, the filmmaker inserts Ph.D. expert testimonials to spell it out during the epilogue. He shoots for “The Usual Suspects” but ends up with “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” One shudders to think of the kind of film Mr. Ritchie will make once he discovers Kabbalah.

Aside from the dazzling action sequences, which have become a hallmark for the director, Mr. Ritchie has wasted his usual gang of interesting characters and performances. Mr. Benjamin’s double-talking Avi and Mark Strong’s eccentric hit man, Sorter, belong in superior movies that are actually entertaining. Mr. Statham, who is rarely asked to play anything but a meathead, impresses here as Jake and the voice inside Jake’s head. These negligible but momentarily amusing bits confirm that sometimes it’s better to just settle for mindless drivel over an incoherent, pretentious bore.

* * *

“Strength and Honor” is the story of debt-ridden Irish ex-boxer Sean Kelleher (Michael Madsen), who, after accidentally killing his brother-in-law in the ring, hung up his gloves at the request of his dying wife. As drama would have it, his son Michael (Luke Whelton) inherited the same life-threatening condition and is in desperate need of an operation. In order to raise the money, Sean breaks his promise to his now-deceased spouse and starts training again. He sells his home, moves into some low-rent housing, and enters a bare-knuckle fighting tournament where the reigning champ, Smasher O’Driscoll (Vinnie Jones), has just beaten the murder charges lodged against him for pummeling two hapless opponents.

After a few pints of dark and a bar brawl, one wonders when the IRA or even the Riverdance company might make an appearance. It’s as if novice writer-director Mark Mahon aspires to be the next Jim Sheridan, but winds up a poor man’s Terry George. If Mr. Mahon’s goal was to become the toast of the Boston Film Festival, it certain worked like a charm — the film claimed Best Picture and Best Actor during this year’s edition. Dane Cook took home the Best Comedic Actor at the same event for “Good Luck Chuck,” so…

Mr. Mahon’s screenplay feels contrived: Two of Sean’s loved ones die, two of them face terminal illnesses, and another copes with paralysis. While viewers are reflexively sympathetic toward the protagonist’s misfortunes, there comes a point when the film is so blatantly manipulative that even a softie grows wary. The script also tediously resolves each of its conflicts in the most convenient way; Michael’s operation costs $250,000, which is the exact amount the boxing tournament will pay its winner. Perhaps if “Strength and Honor” were less predictable, it would pack a lot more punch.

The New York Sun

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