Here's Guy Ritchie's Revolver in a nutshell: During a seven-year stint in solitary confinement, gambler and conman Jason Statham matched wits with the faceless convicts on either side of him. One was the world's greatest con artist, the other a chess grandmaster, and Statham forged their teachings into the most brilliant gambling technique ever devised. Sounds intriguing, right? Can't wait for Statham to get out of jail, hit the casinos, and give Ricky Jay something to sweat about? Well, too bad, because Ritchie doesn't follow through like he did—to rapidly diminishing effect—in the flashy British gangster movies Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. This time around, he's committed to reconfiguring the formula by denying the audience any payoffs, reducing the story to an incoherent jumble of clichés and stereotypes, and adding a layer of pretension that not even Swept Away, his famously botched remake of Lena Wertmüller's Marxist parable, could anticipate. Statham makes a pile of money gambling, to be sure, but it's a mystery how (or even when) he does it. It's that kind of movie.
Ritchie has said that it takes several viewings to fully understand what's going on in Revolver, but once will be enough for most to agree to take his word for it. The basic conflict has a newly sprung Statham seeking revenge on the man who put him in jail, a gangster kingpin and casino boss played by an artificially bronzed Ray Liotta. Though in the middle of a turf war with other drug lords, Liotta sees a threat in Statham and dispatches his henchmen accordingly, but Statham finds some protection in a heavyset mafioso (Vincent Pastore) and a cerebral chess wizard (André Benjamin) who come to his aid. And, oh yeah, he may or may not have a mysterious blood disease that could kill him in a matter of days.
It can be stimulating to think through elliptical crime movies like John Boorman's Point Blank, one in Ritchie's endless constellation of influences, but in Revolver, there's no reward at the end of the line. The film opens with no less than five white-on-black epigrams from sources such as Machiavelli and Julius Caesar, so at least it's upfront about its high-mindedness, but Ritchie relies too much on those quotes to do the philosophical heavy lifting. He also incorporates ideas from Kabbalah—the recently trendy religious offshoot described by the ditzy Jane Krakowski on 30 Rock as "the fun parts of Judaism [combined] with magic"—but their application is equally vague. The prospect of Ritchie going back to the gangster genre a third time is unappetizing, but it has nothing on his feeble attempt to reinvent it.