Happy Together: Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham Step Back from Their Blockbusters

Movies Features Guy Ritchie
Happy Together: Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham Step Back from Their Blockbusters

With Happy Together, Jesse Hassenger examines collaborations between actors and directors that have lasted for three or more non-sequel films.

For several movies early in his career, Jason Statham blends in. Most of his trademarks are in place immediately: the balding-dome head, the gravelly cockney accent, the expression fixed somewhere between a wry deadpan and an intimidating glower. But in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the 1998 Guy Ritchie crime caper that served as Statham’s big-screen debut, he’s one of many rough-hewn British lads; part of the plot hinges on mistaking various groups of scofflaws for each other. Statham isn’t even the only guy in the cast named Jason — nor is he the only Jason who makes it over to Ritchie’s follow-up film Snatch. He’s paired with his Lock Stock co-star Jason Flemyng, who was at the time the more recognizable actor, having appeared in Spice World, mind.

Yet in terms of leading roles, Statham has outlasted virtually all of his Brit castmates in either movie. (Brad Pitt and Benicio del Toro, obviously, are doing fine in that respect.) He has appeared in billion-dollar franchises like the Fast and Furious movies and all-star line-ups like the Expendables series; he’s starred in his own film series like Transporter and The Meg; he hasn’t slunk back to streaming-only programmers or television. Meanwhile, Guy Ritchie has found similar success: He kickstarted a well-liked Hollywood franchise (Sherlock Holmes) and directed a billion-dollar Disney movie (the live-action Aladdin). So it’s a bit unusual that Statham and Ritchie have only really crossed paths when scaling back down. Despite their many individual successes, the modest hit Snatch was only recently overtaken by Wrath of Man as their highest-grossing film together, helped along by two decades of inflation, and seemingly unlikely to be challenged by their latest film, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre.

Ritchie’s career is too varied to claim that he turns all of his movies, big or small, into style-first exercises in cinematic cheek like Snatch. At the same time, Ritchie does have a way of circling around the idea of big-ticket entertainment, supplying more flash and attitude than traditional action-movie set pieces and payoffs. Think of how many of the best moments from his Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake have to do with tossing off action (like a boat chase that finishes up in the background as one character pauses for a snack) in favor of more fashionable imagery (like Alicia Vikander wearing cool pajamas and sunglasses). This tendency becomes all the clearer when examining his collaborations with Statham. Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre is the closest they come to a traditional star vehicle, and still extracts its greatest pleasures from smaller moments.

But let’s use some Ritchie-style scrambled chronology to jump back to Snatch, where it’s striking to re-examine Statham’s presence in light of the action star he would become. Though not top-billed, he narrates the picture, establishing him as a character who comments on the action at least as often as he enters the fray; he’s the literal voice of Ritchie’s self-amused ins and outs. His character, Turkish, is a fight promoter, rather than the fellow throwing punches; Turkish briefly brandishing a baseball bat is nothing like what Statham would get into a couple of years later in The Transporter, where he gets covered in oil and slicks his way through a fight with a bunch of literal axe-men. The Transporter trilogy is primarily a series of fights and chases featuring a genuine Olympic athlete, yet Ritchie’s movies assign the work of bare-knuckle boxing to the likes of Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. rather than Stath.

Granted, Statham was a diver, not a boxer, and neither of Statham and Ritchie’s first two features are exactly action pictures, despite containing plenty of fisticuffs and gunplay. Yet as Statham established himself as a champion on-screen brawler in his Transporter series, fighting off axe attacks and knocking down doors, Ritchie still stubbornly refused to unleash him, instead placing him front and center for a turgid dud called Revolver that came out around the same time as Transporter 2. Revolver only sounds like the kind of gangster goof Ritchie was then best-known for; it’s more like Ritchie and Statham in permanent slow-motion, not a flourish but an affliction. Statham plays a criminal with a price on his head, recently released from prison while remaining stuck in another kind of limbo: a chin-scratching faux-psychological bullshit session revolving around faux-Buddhist philosophizing and Kabbalah symbology. (Ritchie was married to famed Kabbalah enthusiast Madonna at the time, and spends ample behind-the-scenes DVD time enthusing vaguely about “the concept” his movie is apparently bringing across.)

Outside of Ritchie’s orbit, Statham was proceeding like a kind of B-movie James Bond, splitting some characteristics of that British icon into a pair of 2000s franchise characters. Frank Martin of the Transporter trilogy has Bond’s shiny car and mission-driven ethos; Chev Chelios of the Crank movies is forced to indulge in Bondian levels of hedonism just to keep himself alive (which, come to think of it, is also Bond’s excuse). Statham further busied himself playing a variety of parts in on-screen heists, assassinations, and gambling excursions in movies of varying quality released at a steady, sometimes worrying clip. By the time he hooked back up with Ritchie some 15-plus years later, his first director had plenty of experience in a less niche-driven section of Hollywood, having made no fewer than four movies intended to jump-start some kind of franchise.

Indeed, why wasn’t Statham a part of Ritchie’s King Arthur project? Was he being saved for a future value-add to the planned franchise, the way he joined Fast and Furious as a part-six mic drop before serving as a villain, ally, and spinoff subject in subsequent films? Though it earns its rep as a misbegotten blockbuster wannabe, Ritchie’s Arthur is also pretty fun; much of it decorates his cheeky-bruv gangster sensibility with expensive fantasy trappings, and leaving Statham out of it just feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the B-movie energy that keeps the film going. It was probably too much to hope for Statham playing a part in Ritchie’s Aladdin, turning that movie into a reenactment of one of Twitter’s all-time greatest threads; King Arthur, though, seemed doable.

Perhaps recognizing that Statham’s presence was part of a “basics” that Ritchie needed to get back to, the two of them instead made a smaller, nastier movie: Wrath of Man, part of Ritchie’s post-Disney run of productivity (four movies in four years, half of them made during a global pandemic). This is now followed with Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, a movie as light on its feet as Wrath of Man is grimly pulpy.

Like Statham in his 2000s franchises, Wrath and Fortune feel like a Ritchie divided: the tough-guy machinations head for Wrath, while the cheek is ushered into Fortune. In both cases, he tempers his trademark slickness. His camera moves and, especially, cuts are less ostentatious, with long pans and crow’s-eye overheads appearing more often than all-angles editing and cutaway gags, with less staccato dialogue to match. Ritchie doesn’t exactly appear chastened by his blockbuster experience – he’s spoken positively about his work with Disney and expressed enthusiasm over a potential Aladdin sequel — but he does seem to have emerged with a sense of fealty to his self-generated material, rather than his camera tricks, as if determined to prove Guy Ritchie movies really are what he was put on this planet to make, from the screenplay on up.

In this sense, Wrath of Man is one of his best-realized pictures, with Statham especially hard-boiled and minimalist as a mystery man with an ulterior motive for securing a job working armored-car security. Statham’s performance is stoic and still, often cloaked in shadow, and he recedes from the movie for stretches of its back half as its heist story becomes more complicated with flashbacks and additional characters. The movie winds up sharing with Revolver a certain self-serious portent; even when Statham’s motivations are ostensibly deeply personal, he’s floating through (or maybe, given Ritchie’s fondness for overhead shots, above?) a messy story with a kind of lid-tight fury. As much as Ritchie is known for the kineticism now old enough to feel retro — its initial reference points of MTV and ’90s Tarantino are downright musty — Statham seems to inspire him to step back and luxuriate in the power of a star who doesn’t have to get too fussed or mussed. The presence of Clint Eastwood’s son Scott as a hair-trigger screw-up only highlights Statham’s resemblance to the ghostly Eastwood figure of Pale Rider.

If stillness seems like an odd direction for one of his generation’s most reliable on-screen brawlers, it actually captures the paradox of the stoic-man-of-action trope pretty well, and it’s a good fit for a movie like Operation Fortune, which is breezier and chummier than Wrath of Man. Here, Statham displays some stealth range; it’s easy enough to picture a younger Clint Eastwood in a movie like Wrath of Man, but not so much Operation Fortune. The new movie fancies itself more of a caper than an action extravaganza; it’s perfect for anyone who feels that the Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious series have become overblown with continuity, plot points, and megabucks stunts, and even more perfect for anyone who holds a particular fondness for Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 12. Its lower-wattage version of that movie’s Julia Roberts gambit (Roberts playing Tess Ocean, who at one point must impersonate her celebrity lookalike Julia Roberts) has Josh Hartnett playing an actor recruited to help some freelance spies by “playing” himself, luring a target who also happens to be a fan.

Hartnett is affably amusing in the not-quite-double role, but the movie’s real meta dimension comes from Aubrey Plaza, as a new computer-hacker collaborator for sought-after contractor Orson Fortune (Statham). As with much of her work in disposable big-studio movies, Plaza appears to be giving a committed performance while simultaneously offering a DVD commentary on that performance. She’s not undermining the material so much as selling it as a sleight-of-hand bluff. It’s the brainy version of what Statham does with his brawn. (It seems significant somehow that the aforementioned Statham Aladdin Twitter thread later fantasy-cast her as Jasmine, well before Operation Fortune went into production.)

Like Plaza, Statham sometimes appears to be standing outside the action in Operation Fortune, albeit not to the same degree as in Snatch. In fact, Fortune, is the only Statham/Ritchie movie where the director captures much of his star’s kinetic motion in actual fight scenes. They’re not as sustained as those Transporter set pieces, which are constructed to make it look as if Statham might actually get hurt in the meantime, or even maybe lose; here, Orson Fortune never appears to be in any real danger. He’s a bruiser Danny Ocean, only occasionally breaking a sweat. (One of his only big setbacks essentially involves Orson being too spry to prevent one of his opponents from being killed.)

The movie also essentially casts Statham as another James Bond figure, rougher-hewn in the Craig tradition while remaining virtually invulnerable in the tradition of so many pre-Craig incarnations and various knock-offs. There’s a running gag about Fortune vexing his handler (Cary Elwes) by spending the government’s money on budget-busting luxuries, and insisting on at least some of them, like extremely expensive wine, as part of a required mental-health program. It could be one of Ritchie’s occasional, laddish jabs at progressive propriety (his about-to-arrive next project, The Convenant, feels like a lost Peter Berg movie), but it also functions as a goof on the opulent consumption and branding that always finds its way into even the most dire of James Bond world-saving scenarios. In both Operation Fortune and The Gentlemen (which shares multiple cast members with the new film, though not Statham), Ritchie extends his elbow to the ribs of Hollywood shenanigans, a natural interest after spending so much time in franchise-land. Statham gives these jabs a little more credibility; he has plenty of experience half-feigning interest in mega-movie nonsense. He’s a natural choice to play a guy who stubbornly insists luxe treatment out of a kind of blithe spite. Operation Fortune also feels like a one-up over Statham’s Hobbs and Shaw co-star Dwayne Johnson, who couldn’t summon anywhere near this level of insouciant charm for the similarly styled Red Notice.

Guy Ritchie isn’t the only filmmaker who sees something more to Statham than an action figure. Paul Feig directed him to an inspired full-on comic performance in the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy, and Roger Donaldson recognized his more old-school leading-man potential in The Bank Job. They’re both the types of performances Statham may want to revisit as he ages out of the action-hero roles, though he doubtless has his Expendables co-star Sylvester Stallone in one ear, telling him it doesn’t have to end until he’s in the ground. Ritchie, in contrary to his reputation for stylistic excess, takes a more moderate approach, allowing Statham both the spotlight and a comfortable sense of remove.

This may sound like disengagement, but in an overshared era, where we have access to the least essential thoughts and opinions of so many celebrities and their accompanying brands, there’s something relaxing about a star whose brand is mostly just making movies. Though his techniques have changed, Guy Ritchie still favors attitudinal vibes over straight up action. Working with Statham prepares him for both.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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