Small-Time Rooks: Benjamin is one of Revolver?s many outcasts.
Small-Time Rooks: Benjamin is one of Revolver?s many outcasts.

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As narcissistic as it is brutal, Revolver is the first hipster-gangster flick designed to be watched while wearing a red-string Kabbalah bracelet. The style of the film’s opening sequences proceeds from writer-director Guy Ritchie’s first two features, 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch—Quentin Tarantino films with a feigned Cockney accent. Then Mr. Madonna reveals that his essential subjects are the fragmentation of the self and the tyranny of the ego, and the movie begins to resemble a sideways remake of Performance, Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s dazzling 1970 mindfuck. Ultimately, however, Revolver is Ritchie’s advertorial for the teachings of his wife’s guru, insurance salesman turned cult leader Philip Berg.

Madonna and Ritchie have reportedly retreated from Berg’s Kabbalah Centre, but then Revolver is not the most up-to-date spiritual bulletin. The original movie was released (and widely panned) in Britain more than two years ago, and this week’s arrival of a new, revamped-for-Americans version is a mystery. So, for that matter, is the plot. It follows small-time felon Jake Green (Ritchie stalwart Jason Statham) after his release from prison; he feuds with a male casino mogul curiously named Dorothy Macha (Ray Liotta), tangles with the inevitable Chinese drug-peddling gang, and becomes the protegé—or perhaps pawn—of enigmatic loan shark Zack (Vincent Pastore) and his chess-playing partner Avi (André Benjamin).

Jake’s adventures involve bloody shootouts, sadistic torture sessions, and several scenes played by the fleshy Liotta in tight underpants or less. The action is rendered with the requisite quick cuts, cinematic quotations, and pointless flourishes, including a brief, Kill Bill-y switch to animation. The film’s most effective puzzlement is its shifting sense of place. Shot largely on the Isle of Man, which generously subsidizes filmmakers, the movie is set in an unidentified metropolis that conflates London and Las Vegas. Yet a few scenes transpire at an old-fashioned mountain lodge in what looks like the American West, and for at least one moment Jake appears to be in Hong Kong. These locale shifts imply that the story unfolds entirely inside the mind of a character or onlooker—Jake, perhaps, or Avi, or maybe Deepak Chopra, who emerges just before the final credits to inform us that “the ego is the devil.”

Dorothy dismisses Jake as “a man who needs a master,” an alpha-male putdown that ultimately assumes a more mystical significance. (He must master himself, see?) But Revolver is clearly the work of an acolyte, stuffed with references to the Kabbalah according to Philip Berg. Jake, Zack, and Avi each symbolize one of three essential life forces, and are named for Hebrew patriarchs: Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. The mystical number 32 appears repeatedly, and Jake—who gets claustrophobic in elevators—experiences a psychological bar mitzvah while trapped in a elevator car between the 12th and 14th floors. There’s more of this stuff, and additional signifiers were reportedly pruned along the way. In one of the year’s strangest movie credits, producer Luc Besson is acknowledged for having “adapted” the film.

Besson, who’s combined Ritchie’s Brit-mobster matrix with Hong Kong action-film templates in such assembly-line product as The Transporter, may have rescued the film from its director’s worst indulgences. (Aside, that is, from Chopra’s commentary and Liotta’s bare butt.) Yet this is still a movie that can only be appreciated by connoisseurs of meltdowns and train wrecks. While as lively and vigorous as the director’s early work, Revolver is nonetheless entirely nuts. If the Kabbalah Centre teaches anything about balance, Ritchie must have skipped that lesson.