RocknRolla review

Might Guy Ritchie's return to gangland London be more than his usual cockney barrel of gun-toting monkeys...?

Gerard Butler on the blower in RocknRolla.

There’s always been something indescribably smug about Guy Ritchie’s films; but, like a prodigiously talented-but-shallow footballer, it’s horribly easy to switch off your better judgement and forgive a few foibles with someone who virtually always entertains you; especially when they offer a glimpse of an aspirational lifestyle that you envy…

When you secretly wish you were someone, it’s hard to really hate him. Therefore like Best, Ronaldo, Gascoigne, Savage or Bellamy, Ritchie keeps getting the big-money transfers and I keep paying the ticket price. Next stop after Rocknrolla? Sherlock Holmes, with Russell Crowe onboard, we’re told. Laaaahrvely. And on this basis, I’m possibly 10% less scared about that than I was at the start of today. But then again…

Look, I pretty much know what’s wrong with the effortlessly glamorously-violent, testosterone-soaked machismo of Ritchie’s mockney tales. I know what’s wrong with the breezy geezer characterisations, the lack of anything resembling a strong female character – and his apparent pathological inability to create, or direct, one – I know what’s wrong with his ADHD-stricken directorial style, one that makes Tarantino look calm in comparison. However, I’m a sucker for a camera trick, a kinetic film experience, and I’m a sucker for a skewed morality tale… Always have been, always will be. What’s more, as a member of the Loadedgeneration, a boy raised in new-lad Britannia, I feel obliged to take a butchers hook, y’know what I mean?

And Rocknrolla offers plenty to look at, from the oh-so-cool Banksy-robbing title sequence – soundtracked by a super-heavy take on Muddy Waters’ I’m A Man from Blackstrobe – to the sharp shooting; the quick-cutting editorial style; the fetishisation of London’s new-look skyline in the cinematography; the slightly grimy patina of the film stock and its muted colour tone; the predictably brilliant soundtrack featuring Lou Reed’s The Gun, The Sonics’ glorious take on Have Love Will Travel, Kim Fowley, The Hives, The Clash, The Beat and The 22-20s; a sharp script with a more than a few cracking moments – like the effervescent robbery flashback, accompanied with a claustrophobic, fast-paced, funny, beautifully-composed and realised chase scene; and that’s before we even get to the cast.

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Rocknrolla has neither Jason Statham (he was off making Death Race, and couldn’t make it) nor Flemyng. No Nick Moran, no Vinnie Jones… Nope, not a whiff of the Vinster – in short, none of the regulars. Good.

“But,” I hear you cry, “how can it be a Guy Ritchie movie without everyone’s favourite nose-biting ‘lets-just-forget-he’s-thug-and-condescend-to-treat-him-like-a-thick-guy-made-good’ cult hero?”

“I know not…” would’ve been my reply. Now, however, I do. He gave everyone great things to say, and relied on them to act it believably, not something Vinnie’s famed for.

One could point out, by way of an aside, that with the cast Ritchie has assembled for his return to heightened-reality gangland London, the chief subject matter could’ve been the theft of his (probably macrobiotic, organic and very expensive) shopping, and I would’ve still watched it avidly. For, when they get going, this ensemble is a truly wonderful thing to behold. What’s more, Rocknrolla emphasises Ritchie as a director who knows a thing or two about writing and filming banter, for has corralled the elements together wonderfully. He really is shaping up as a British QT, make of that what you will.

He also knows a thing or two about telling parallel stories too, and it is to this tried and trusted method he returns for this self-penned script. A very clever story it is too – trademark stamped with Ritchie’s love for a good McGuffin, serendipity, zemblanity (it’s a great word), sharp suits, geezers, guns and a good caper. All this shows up his more ‘linear’ efforts as being the pedestrian affairs they are; in short, stop this man trying to make ‘straight’ films.

Rocknrolla, for good and for bad, perfectly showcase Ritchie’s ability to write decent male dialogue, and direct men, in movies for men; let him stray from this template and it’s never nearly as cushty. Guy Ritchie is good at making Guy Ritchie movies, and not so good at not making Guy Ritchie movies. If Guy Ritchie ever learns to accept this, he’ll avoid disappointments like Swept Away, and thus so will I. This would be a good thing. And, it’s just dawned on me: how ironic is that name? It should be ‘For Guys Ritchie’… Maybe.

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The ensemble is lead by the film’s narrator, Brit character-man, Mark Strong as Archy, the quietly-spoken, hard-as-nails right-hand man to property magnate/gangster Lenny Cole – played by the quite glorious Tom Wilkinson, whose eye-catching performance stands head-and-shoulders above all before him. Wilkinson, so good in so many things – not least Batman Begins – again hits the perfect line between charm, malevolence and indignance as the voice of the ‘old-school’ British hard man. He is, frankly, brilliantly two-faced, and wonderfully played, of course.

Strong’s performance, cool and calculated, is striking inasmuch as he is the eye of the storm, as events swirl around him ne’er a bead of sweat breaks across his furrowed brow, nor a crease appear in his sharp, understated apparel. Coming off as some East End Al Pacino, he is the film’s dark heart, and the epitome of a Ritchie gangster – dark, sharp, cruel, loyal and more-than-a-little likeable. And, unlike Pacino, not prone to BOUTS OF SHOUTING. Thank God.

The main screen time goes to Gerard Butler, whose performance as ‘One Two’ (don’t ask, I don’t know) is likeably comic and smooth after the histrionics of 300, where I saw him last. Alongside (former star of The Wire) Idris Elba and Tom Hardy (best known to all geeks as Shinzon from Star Trek: Nemesis) he forms part of The Wild Bunch, a gang of dodgy loveables trying to get by as nefariously as possible. It seems that Ritchie hopes these characters will centre a new mythology around which he can create a new series of underworld movies, the end of the film more than hints at this. There’s plenty in the comfortable interaction, charming comedy and shifty blend that the trio bring to the table to hint that he may have hit the nail squarely on the head.

Add to this a bravura turn by Toby Kebbell as Johnny Quid, the titular anti-hero, a disappeared, super-intelligent junkie rock star with ties to the darker side of London life; a scenery-critiquing light-hearted cameo by Nonso Anozie at Merchant Ivory-loving uber-tout Tank, Karel Roden (Rasputin from Hellboy) as the stadium-dwelling Russian money-man; Super Hans himself, Matt King as drug-dealing philosopher and wide-eyed wide boy Cookie and Ludacris double-teaming with the wonderful Jeremy Piven as totally out-of-their-league gig promoters, and you have a formidable squad on your hands, and I’ve just scratched the surface.

I’ll even give Thandie Newton a free pass this time, for while she remains the invisibly beautiful cinematic black hole she has always been, there’s enough matter floating around in her dark gravitational pull to keep me from falling asleep whenever she comes on screen. Ritchie can’t write for women, this much is clear, and her role comes off as a horrible expository afterthought – but that this woman is due to play Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone’s new flick W. beggars belief.

Though she fails to suck the life from this film, she gives it a damn good shot though, as the vacuous, manipulative, greedy, uber-bitch Stella – inevitably the weakest characterisation of the whole film, a shame seeing as she exists as a fulcrum to the cats cradle of relationships which make up the storyline.

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As such, not everything in Rocknrolla works all of the time – there are a few ‘huh?’ moments, and some miss-steps, to my mind. The bottom line is, that with a cast this good when it works, it really works. There are some classic Ritchie set-pieces, and a few drop-dead funny moments (of both the black and the blue variety) which all punctuating a sprawling tale. Yes, there are some liberties taken with the script, and if you wanna shoot holes in the plot, there are some big targets to aim at.

Not all of the strands of Ritchie’s frayed storyline are satisfactorily tied either; so if anything, the end of this two-hour film seems rushed. If there was some drive to come in under the 120-minute mark, I have to applaud this, as I love a lean film, no fat. Weirdly though, Rocknrolla is not that. I would’ve like to have seen an elongated ending in favour of axing some other exposition and Newton’s character, who – unless there is to be some pay-off in a later tale – seemed completely superfluous by the end, appearing to be dropped like a ton of bricks. Some (what appear to be) cutting room decision leave Rocknrolla with a suspiciously soft belly and a bit of a glass jaw, but one does suspect that seeds were being planted in order to be reaped further down the line, or at least one would hope that’s the case.

Not a great film, but a good one, Rocknrolla adds a fun card to Guy Ritchie’s deck; and offers intriguing options for him to return to in the future.

3 stars

Rating:

3 out of 5