Guy Ritchie hit upon a successful formula when directing his first two films, bringing his unique sense of style and panache to the crime thriller genre, but then blotted his copybook when he attempted new things in his following two movies. The husband of mega-popstar Madonna cast his famous wife in one his biggest commercial and critical flops, but has since tried to get his career back on track after divorcing her in late 2008.
Guy Stuart Ritchie was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, to successful marketing executive John Vivian Ritchie and Amber Parkinson. His parents divorced when he was five, and his mother would later marry Sir Michael Leighton, a baronet. Ritchie spent a fair amount of his childhood at the Leighton estate, although his mother and Sir Michael would divorce seven years later. Ritchie was born with severe dyslexia, and at 15 was expelled from Stanbridge Earls School, a specialist school for dyslexics. He worked as a labourer before getting into the film industry at age 25.
He began as a film runner (an odd jobber on film and TV sets) before trying his hand at directing music videos, doing “20 videos back to back, really crappy ones with sort of German rave bands”. This gave him some valuable experience behind the camera, and he moved on to doing commercials. With the much-needed grounding, he went on to direct a 20 minute short, ‘The Hard Case’ (1995), which aired on Channel 4. As it did so, it caught the attention of Trudie Styler, the wife of singer Sting, and she invested money into what would become Ritchie’s first feature full-length film, ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ (1998).
‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ introduced Guy Ritchie to the world in the most remarkable and emphatic manner. A rip-roaring peek at the London underworld, it was in equal parts a caper romp, a heist flick, and with Ritchie’s pen at its best, it utilised the quickfire wit and pithy dialogue of Cockney Londoners. Colourful characters, a convoluted plot, stylised violence and an emphasis on dialogue led comparisons to be drawn between Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, ‘Lock…’ is as seminal to Ritchie’s career as ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) or ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994) was to Tarantino’s.
A largely unknown cast as leading characters helped Ritchie keep a lid on things - ‘Lock…’ is credited with kick-starting Jason Statham’s route to stardom, he has now forged a career in Hollywood playing action-type characters with a tendency to shoot off at the mouth. With footballer Vinnie Jones (a fatherly thug), comedian Rob Brydon (as an unfortunate traffic warden) and Sting (an unfatherly pub landlord) being the best known names among the cast, ‘Lock…’ was a surprise hit at the box office.
Ritchie was the hottest new director in Britain after the release of ‘Lock…’ and there was a clamour for more of the same rambunctious rollicking roller-coaster Ritchie rides. Finally, it was Sony that backed Ritchie’s sophomore effort, ‘Snatch’ (2000), which followed very much in the vein of ‘Lock…’. Where ‘Lock…’ was centred around a card game gone awry, ‘Snatch’ made bareknuckle boxing and diamonds the premise on which the fantastical and outrageous antics of the characters were based.
Ritchie re-called Jason Statham, Alan Ford, and Vinnie Jones from ‘Lock…’, but ‘Snatch’ featured Hollywood big names like Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina and Benicio Del Toro. The casting of Pitt especially, as a gypsy bareknuckle boxer, was the cause of much hilarity, as Pitt was forced to learn an incomprehensible Pikey accent; he pulled it off with uncustomary aplomb. The public loved ‘Snatch’, although the critics complained that Ritchie followed the ‘Lock…’ formula so slavishly that they were essentially identical movies with different actors.
Ritchie wed pop singer, ‘Material Girl’ and seemingly bionic lady Madonna, she of the conical brassieres in the eighties, on 22 December 2000, after their son Rocco was born on 11 August 2000. Soon after, Ritchie directed Madonna in a commercial for German car-maker BMW, part of a series of advertisements called ‘The Hire’. With BMW cars used for the first time in the Pierce Brosnan/James Bond movies ‘GoldenEye’ (1995), ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997) and ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (1999), BMW were keen to cash in on their image as a car for the young and sporty, but with the cool edge of danger.
‘The Hire’ brought in eight of the world’s top action directors, including John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai, to direct eight short films – each with differing scenarios but all starring Clive Owen (the Driver) who would demonstrate the cars’ prowess and performance. In the Ritchie/Madonna episode, ‘Star’, Madonna plays a spoilt celebrity travelling to the venue of her concert, while Owen plays her chauffeur. Unbeknownst to Madonna’s character, her long-suffering and browbeaten manager has hired Owen to teach her a lesson – in a beautiful BMW M5, he then proceeds to race recklessly around the city with Madonna in the back seat, on the pretext of escaping from her moronic bodyguards. He finally delivers her to the venue, breathless, bruised and only very slightly wet, gift wrapped for the rolling cameras.
Pounding soundtracks, cool violence, smart-mouthed and flashy characters, fast editing, and multi-pronged plots had got Ritchie to where he was so far. Perhaps he was stung by the criticism of ‘Snatch’, possibly he was under the spell of his new wife, or maybe he genuinely wanted to test himself as a director in a new and unfamiliar surrounding.
Whatever it was, Ritchie’s next outing was a critical and commercial failure. 2002’s ‘Swept Away’ starred Madonna in a remake of a 1974 Italian film (‘Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto’, or ‘Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August’) – and was universally panned. Its run in the American cinemas lasted only three weeks, and it went direct to video in the UK. Critics picked up on Madonna’s lack of acting ability and the non-existent chemistry between her and lead actor Adriano Giannini. Incensed at the film’s critical reception, Madonna reportedly swore never to act in a movie again, not realising that the movie-going world breathed a collective sigh of relief at the proclamation.
‘Revolver’ (2005) was Ritchie’s attempt to give some underlying substance to his tried-and-true crime film formula. Set in Las Vegas and starring Ray Liotta as a powerful casino owner and Jason Statham as a conman out for revenge, ‘Revolver’ had an oblique plot and a fantastical storyline which divided critics and the public. Some saw it as unnecessarily complicated and hence pretentious, while others saw it as a David Lynch-type film, dark, allegorical and up to the interpretation of the individual viewer. Some have also attempted to find religious symbolism in the movie, as it is well-known that at this time, both Ritchie and Madonna were involved in the mystic discipline of Kabbalah, an esoteric interpretation of Judaism. Whatever it was, it was a confusing film and performed poorly at the box office, but at least avoided the five Razzies that ‘Swept Away’ swept away in 2002.
Ritchie returned to his roots in 2008 with ‘RocknRolla’, his third crime film set in London. Critics were predictably divided again, although the general consensus was that he was doing what he did best – with the ill-advised forays into serious cinema coming to a painful end, he now had the chance to regroup and reanimate his career. His eight-year marriage to Madonna ended in divorce in late 2008, an event which dominated the headlines for weeks as unsavoury allegations were exchanged. Ritchie went on to direct a sexed-up version of 'Sherlock Holmes', starring Robert Downey Jr in the title role, released in 2009.
This film proved to be a success, as it was nominated for two Oscars in 2010, including Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Picture. Ritchie was also nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror USA for the film.
The director filmed a sequel to Sherlock Holmes entitled 'A Game of Shadows', which was released in 2011. Next up, he will direct the new movie version of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E'.
Meanwhile, Ritchie's personal life is also looking up as well as his professional career. He met his model girlfriend Jacqui Ainsley following his divorce from Madonna in 2008.
In September 2011, the couple had their first child together - a baby boy who is yet to be named. Jacqui delivered their son a few days early through an emergency caesarean at the Portland hospital, London.
Ritchie's ex-wife reportedly sent the couple flowers on the arrival of their new baby. They had another child in 2012 and are now engaged.
She recently said at the Venice Film Festival: "I was and am attracted to very creative people."
"That's why I married Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, two very talented directors, and they both encouraged me as a director and as a creative person to do what I did."