15 October 2008 | bob the moo
It isn't style without substance it is style with poor substance
After seven years in solitary confinement between a cell containing a chess master and a cell containing a con artist, Jake leaves to seek revenge on Macha with the vast amount of money he has gotten from gambling. He starts his revenge with humiliation but soon blacks out only to be told by a doctor that he has mere days to live. Mysterious loan sharks Zack and Avi offer him "protection" from death in return for all his money. Meanwhile Macha puts a hit out on Jake. With death and betrayal everywhere, somebody is playing the ultimate high-stakes game but are all the players known, and who will emerge victorious?
I had someone ask me recently if I'd seen this because they wanted a second opinion. The reason for this, they said, was that they thought it was good one minute, then terrible the next, then maybe it is good again, then not, then it ended. Of course being asked for an opinion peaked my interest (and boosted my ego) and I was planning to watch it anyway, just to see for myself what about it deserved such a slating from the critics. In answer to the latter statement it must be said that, unsurprisingly, the film did not deserve the universal condemnation it received in the press and in truth it was just another time to lay into someone who had gotten too big for his boots and perhaps needed taking down a peg or two and a weak project was the perfect reason. It happens every year critics have so many mediocre films to write about that a good one sees loving reviews in the same way as a bad one is the chance to write a really memorable, scathing review whether either it is truly deserved or not.
So this leaves me with my colleague's statement and on that I found him to be accurate because at times it does SEEM to be a really cool film that is going somewhere interesting. This impression is built around a good start and pace to the film, with plenty of tough posturing, mystery and style. In fact, to deny that the film is delivered with style would be bad form indeed because the film does look very cool and very interesting. Problem is that, at some point, that isn't enough and once you get beyond the halfway mark you get the increasing feeling that this isn't going anywhere nearly as interesting or clever as you would like to think. By the ending that feeling will be confirmed as correct as the film stumbles into a pretentious and poorly delivered conclusion to the story and characters. Ritchie had been quite unreasonably arrogant about people who don't "get" his film but to me not only is it his fault for the ham-fisted delivery of his twist, but as writer he also has come up with an idea for a twist that reads like a poor copy of other, better films. It just doesn't play and the cold (if stylish) approach keeps the audience at a distance so we care less than we should and are given more opportunity to see the twists as pretentious and half-cooked.
Within this messy and slightly nonsensical affair the cast actually do pretty well by playing to the style rather than the content. Statham makes the best of his situation with another tough presence on screen even if, ultimately, I don't think he buys his character himself and thus cannot be part of the sale to the audience. Liotta I quite liked even though the "unhinged violent criminal" thing is pretty much the equivalent of him staring out the window with everything set to cruise control. Pastore and Benjamin are a cool presence who drive the film early on (with the mystery of their characters) but gradually become less engaging as the plot unravels. The rest of the cast pretty much provide solid enough tough men without (fortunately) sinking into the easy "apples and pears" type performances that Ritchie seems to like in his films generally. The only performance of real note though is from Ritchie as director because he pulls everything together with a lot of visual style and imagination; shame then that the worst "performance" is also from him as a writer because he has produced a script so full of its own cleverness that it cannot be bothered to aim for engaging the audience and sits back arrogantly while the delivery is fudged and incoherent.
Revolver is not the screaming disaster that everyone would have you believe, but this is as close to a recommendation as I can give it. Visually it is stylish and early on this sense of tough coolness does draw you into the plot to see where it goes. Sadly though the answer is that it doesn't go anywhere worth being and it goes there with a slow pace that suggests it is being very clever and worthy when really the plot is not anywhere as clever or as developed as it needed to be. It isn't style without substance it is style with poor substance.