Thursday, November 6, 2008
At this point, Guy Ritchie is probably- oh, let’s face it, he is best known for being Madonna’s soon-to-be ex. That’s a bit tragic considering at one point the director of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” was the king of the Tarantino clones, the only one who managed to make something almost original out of the post-“Pulp Fiction” furor. Then he made “Swept Away” and “Revolver,” two of the worst films of all time. At this point Ritchie set the bar so low he could have made a snuff film and gotten better reviews. Instead, he went back to the familiar “Lock, Stock” ground, with generally positive results.
Pinning down the plot is a bit tricky, as the film is more about subplots than an actual narrative. The main thrust of the story concerns a real estate deal between Uri (Karel Roden), an endlessly wealthy Russian businessman, and Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a notorious gangster who considers himself the true ruler of London. As an act of good faith between partners, Uri gives his lucky painting to Lenny. Soon, it gets stolen, and all hell breaks loose. Ritchie sure loves his Macguffins, doesn’t he?
While Lenny combs the London underworld for the painting, a street gang called the Wild Bunch and its leader One-Two (“300’s” Gerard Butler) start stealing Uri’s payments to Lenny with the help Uri’s accountant Stella (Thandie Newton), who’s taken to theft out of sheer boredom. If that sounds a bit complicated, wait til the subplots pop up. One-Two must deal with the advances of a recently outed homosexual friend; Lenny has to track down a possibly dead rock star; and Lenny’s right-hand man Archie (Mark Strong) goes around slapping people for information. The ushers should hand out playbills for this movie.
The problem with all these goings-on is that it gives the film a certain hollowness. Almost all the characters are genuinely interesting, but we get so little time with any of them thanks to the dizzying jump cuts. Thandie Newton sleeps through the film, showing up just to look pretty and drop some pithy line, and you can only make out every third word Butler says. Jeremy Piven and Ludacris show up, ostensibly so we the audience will remark “Hey look, it’s Jeremy Piven and Ludacris!” They use up valuable screen time that could have been devoted to one or several of the more interesting characters.
Still, the good outweighs the bad. Mark Strong, who was the best thing about Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” similarly stands out here with his offbeat performance, while the great character actor Tom Wilkinson puts in fine work as usual. The characters all have enough quirks to stand out, and, but Ritchie should have cut some unnecessary characters and scenes and focused more on its motley crew instead of an intense mob story that feels generic coming from him.
This is, at heart, a film designed to be more fun for its cast than its audience. Indeed, the actors are so clearly having a good time that “RocknRolla” has an undeniable charm, and it lacks much of the self-assured smugness that made the similarly overpopulated “Oceans” films so tedious. For all its complications, a lot less goes on than you might think, and the rapid editing makes a gangster comedy seem like an action movie. Fans of Ritchie should rejoice; it’s not as entertaining as “Lock, Stock” or “Snatch,” but it’s certainly a step in the right direction after his last two films and a welcome return to form.