Who's afraid of this Guy?

by David Thomson
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One of the things you keep hearing about Guy Ritchie is that he doesn't say a lot. He'd much rather have you talking about him.

One of the things you keep hearing about Guy Ritchie is that he doesn't say a lot. He'd much rather have you talking about him.

"Well, what does that mean?" I said, to this guy I was talking to. "Shy, is he?"

"I wouldn't say that, no, not our Guy. Not shy. But playing a bit of a role. Putting on the demeanour."

"What sort of demeanour would that be?" I wondered.

"Letting you wonder, if you know what I mean," he said. "I tell you what: wherever he is, whatever company he's in, he gives you the impression that he actually belongs somewhere else. Take my meaning?"

Taken, my son, taken. What we're talking about, I dare say, is that lost look. You can see it in Guy's face. He has a timid look, waiting to be told off or found out. I saw a picture of him once holding a gun, and his eyes were far-away, a little boy's eyes, who had wondered what it might feel like to hold a gun and snarl at the rest of the world and threaten to shoot their eyes out. When he wouldn't hurt a fly. When he was scared of being hurt himself.

After the war, there was so much uncertainty, with public schools taking in scholarship boys from all the wretched parts of London, and the kids not knowing how to talk posh or dress for cricket. And giving up all their regular friends from the council schools, so they didn't have any friends, unless they learnt to pass as a public schoolboy. Which was a kind of betrayal. You saw kids then that were nervous wrecks most of the time, didn't know if they were coming or going. That's what I see in Guy Ritchie's face. I reckon he has dissembled a lot to keep up. But that's the start of being interesting.

So, never mind all the guns and the geezer talk and the hard guys, someone like Guy Ritchie is probably going to be anxious for someone to love, and to love him. So he's off with Madonna, and they've got a kid. Because Guy missed out on the family life, and there's an energy in Madonna that can blow away his sadness. The first time I looked at Guy Ritchie's face, it was the sadness I saw. And all the violence in his movies was there to show us he was not scared. I've seen that look before - in the face of Martin Scorsese, who was a sickly kid in New York City and used to wait to make sure the street was clear when he went out, so he wouldn't get beaten up.

"Well, now," says my friend, "funny you should say that, but Guy, he has this scar on his face - wicked!" And gently, shyly, casually, Guy Ritchie has intimated that he got the scar in some terrific piece of violence. But, of course, he's also said that he's lived in the East End all his life - the East End of the imagination, if you ask me.

If you look a little deeper, it turns out that Guy Ritchie - did you ever hear of a Guy in the East End? - spent most of his London time in Fulham, and I mean Fulham of the Seventies, when it was foodies and Peter Osgood. As a matter of fact, his dad was an advertising executive and very successful. That was John. The mother's name was Amber; she was a model and she got married a few times, and one of her husbands was a baronet with this country estate in Shropshire.

So, Guy as a kid was west London and the rural Midlands. There was money around, and Guy was sent to a lot of private schools, but he was also the child of a broken home in the Seventies and early Eighties, and there were drugs around and plenty of reasons to feel sorry for yourself. And he was in and out of a lot of schools, because he wasn't doing very well, and maybe it was because he was dyslexic. Dyslexia is one of those words people use, hoping it will spread and cover just about everything else in sight.

I have known boys like Guy who never learnt to spell and ended with a little dyslexia, but who would read every work of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane or Elmore Leonard or Jim Thompson they could get their hands on, and who sometimes ended up talking like those books because they never knew what to say for themselves. You know, there are shy boys, quite soft, really, who'll look at you and dare you and challenge you and say, "Are you talking to me? Well, you must be, because I'm the only one here." And the nice thing about that is that they really are the only one there, talking to themselves. From having no friends or being afraid of the toughs on the streets.

And seeing all the movies, of course, and working it out that if he didn't know what sort of Englishman he was, well, he could always be American.

Anyway, all he got out of proper school, he said, was one GCE - in film studies. You don't have to believe that, but I can hear him going round Soho telling the story, and then throwing in little movie stories. The word is that, for years, the one time Guy wasn't tongue-tied was when he was pitching you a movie, telling a story and doing the actions and the dialogue so you could see it. Had a knack for it, everyone said. At the same time, he let people think that he was working on a building-site and then blasting his mind all night in the pub. Maybe. Maybe he was in his small flat, and these were excuses for why nobody ever saw much of him. But the word got around that he knew hard cases.

The funny thing about this is the old George Raft/Ben Siegel friendship, the actor and the gangster. Siegel, you see, wanted to be famous, admired, respectable - so he kept Georgie around because it might help him into movies and to meet actresses. And Raft was happy to have Ben in his address book because it made everyone in Hollywood say, "That George. He knows actual hoodlums. That's why he does those parts so well." The same unholy schmoozing went on over The Godfather, and it likely accounts for Guy's lurid entourage now. Real gangsters have this yearning to be in show business. Rhetorical talk can cover up for not being able to read - a handicap that has other causes than dyslexia.

Guy started doing music videos. He had a knack for it and he liked the overall, comfortable way in which the makers of such fragments were encouraged to be incoherent and aggressive. That pairing was another way in which he was sometimes mistaken for a tough nut.

By the time he was 29, with Matthew Vaughn as his producer, he was able to set up Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a movie that owes so much to Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, it would be embarrassing from a truly hard case. In fact, there's no reason not to follow: Tarantino had drawn on a wide range of crazes and influences for his first pictures. But Tarantino had a narrative sense, an ability to have the serpent eat its own tail, that made Lock, Stock look rather plain.

No matter; there was an audience for vicious English criminals (there always has been), and Ritchie shared with Tarantino an intoxication for the way these creatures of the dark talked. It's what made the film famous as a comedy, despite its dogged intrigue and violence. And there was something very cute in having it played by a cast that ranged from the public school (Jason Statham) to the thuggery of soccer (Vinnie Jones). The whole thing was filmed in colours that were either washed flat or super-saturated: it was more arty than artistic, but in the new realm of film studies at GCE, the one easily becomes the other. And it was only a first film.

It made at least 10 times what it had cost in Britain alone, and it then got a respectable release in America, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Tom Cruise (another famous dyslexic, by the way). Madonna liked it, too - and if you aren't too sure about her taste in film, don't even bother to check the record. It stinks.

The rest is modern legend. All of a sudden, the British press wanted to know about Guy Ritchie and his thorough knowledge of geezers. Which is about when Guy started shutting up. Anyone who'd been through as many schools as he had probably knew a few journalists, so he was on to the appetite for the profession in those kids predicted as porridge candidates. He began to spend more time in Los Angeles, and it was far easier there to reflect on the deep influence of the East End.

At home, Channel 4 jumped at the idea of a sort of continuation of "Lock, Stock et cetera". And that's when it began to be noted that Guy and the one-time Madonna Ciccone were keeping solid company. She was 10 years older than Guy, and she had already been through the extensive education of Sean Penn and Warren Beatty, as well as being "Like a Virgin" and not. It has to be said that Guy's movies do not dwell on the inner life of women - they do not even have very much time for their slutty exteriors. Indeed, Guy does not do women, which had led to some provocative speculations about what went on at those several minor private schools from which he kept getting bumped.

I do not contribute to that way of thinking. There are a lot of would-be tough film-makers all over the world who are simply terrified of women, because women laugh at you if you keep strutting around talking like a hoodlum. Madonna may be an exception to that. She, too, in her way has hardly "done" reality, and she may be very appreciative of Guy's talent for depicting a kind of stylised underworld in which she may yet again be a goddess fatale.

She liked him enough to have a child with him. Their son, Rocco - a terrific name for a certain kind of picture - Rocco Ritchie, was born.

Whereupon Guy started talking like someone determined to confess - about how gorgeous, golden and Greek-like the baby was, and so on, and how he and Rocco and Madonna and Lourdes (her older daughter) have "a real family unit going".

Meanwhile, here is Guy's second feature film, Snatch, which - in a nutshell review - is just like the first. Except that this one has Brad Pitt in it. This time, several groups in the underworld are after a very big diamond. Again, there is hardly a skirt in sight, but the talk is like poetry. I wouldn't be surprised if Guy could do this kind of thing for another 10 years. Tarantino seems to have stopped for a while, but Tarantino is more talented.

I don't mean to write Guy off - as a film-maker or as a father. He'll have to learn to adapt to the wilful ways of the mother of his child. He may find himself squeezed out of that fold. And he could try harder as a film-maker.

He could even realise that his own sad early life might be a fine subject for a film.