RocknRolla (2008) (blog)

Category: RocknRolla Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: September 3, 2008 | Publication: Slate Scrawl | Author: Editor
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If there is any working director who has experienced such a dramatic turning in the past few years, it’s British filmmaker Guy Ritchie. Exploding onto the international scene with his stylised London gangster flick Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, he was heralded as Britain’s biggest hope for a competing with Hollywood. But after jumping the follow-up hurdle successfully with Snatch, he took a beating for betraying his genre roots on Swept Away and then again for making the introspective bizarre-o-fest, Revolver. This time it’s back to London, back to the gangsters, back to the heists and back to the well. Like a lost child returning home, it’s good to see him safe and sound.

The film opens by introducing us to an underhand property deal gone wrong, which leaves a usually cocksure guy who goes by the nickname One Two, owing money to London’s most dangerous criminal, Lenny Cole. In a bid to earn what he owes, One Two starts doing jobs for the mysterious Stella, who just happens to be the accountant for Uri, a Russian mobster who has got his eyes on Lenny’s turf. Throw into the mix a miscreant rocker named Johnny Quid, a bunch of One Two’s mates (who together form ‘the Wild Bunch’), and a much-desired ‘lucky’ painting. It all adds up to war in the Capital – with everyone vying to get the upper hand.

RocknRolla is much closer to the Ritchie archetype laid out in Snatch and Lock Stock, which leads to easy and obvious comparisons with his earlier works. And why not? I don’t think there’s any doubting that this is an attempt to claw back the respect received by those films, and produce another enjoyable, knockabout London gangster flick for the fans. Just for the record, I really liked Lock Stock (after dismissing it originally and then catching it on DVD), and I enjoyed, but was less enthralled by, Snatch. It’s the unique character-based spin that makes Ritchie’s movies what they are though, and in that respect, RocknRolla succeeds ten-fold.

We are introduced to what seems like fifty different characters, all with distinct personalities and their own descriptive nicknames. Early on it can become a little overwhelming, especially as you’re trying to take in the voice-over back-story (typically Ritchie with its tales of dodgy dealings and a “you owe me money, son” setup), but as the film progresses, you gradually grow accustomed to the rogues gallery of characters. Importantly, it’s these people who drive interest in the back-and-forth storyline, which follows the classic interweaving tales structure from Lock Stock, and means that careful choice of acting talent is required throughout.

Luckily, the cast doesn’t disappoint. Gerard Butler is good as cheeky hard-man One Two, and it’s a welcome return after a couple of weaker loved-up roles in Nim’s Island and P.S. I Love You. Similarly well-suited is Tom Wilkinson, who follows up his Best Supporting actor nomination for Michael Clayton [review], by playing the respected Godfather figure, Lenny Cole. Then there’s support from a whole host of lesser involved, but equally as effective, supporting players, including Mark Strong, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Karel Roden, Matt King, Ludacris and Jeremy Piven. Thandie Newton provides the femme fatale element, but for me it is Toby Kebbell, playing rock star Johnny Quid, who steals the show with his whacked-out but educated deliveries.

The only person who could draw attention away from such a huge cast is Ritchie himself, and it’s likely that he will take most of the brunt for the success or failure of this film. As scriptwriter, he loads up the dialogue with as much regionalised dialect as he can find, and lets the gags flow thick and fast whenever the opportunity strikes. The actual story, on the other hand, feels a little like a Lock Stock throwback and never manages to tie all the threads together in a manner that satisfies like it did in ‘98. The ending, in particular, is a bit of a let down after all the build up, while the final twist is openly divulged about thirty seconds before the ‘reveal’ sequence plays out. This all holds the movie back a bit, along with some drawn out scenes that serve to slow down the pace of a film that often feels like it should be moving faster.

Where the picture breaks from its ten-year-old origins is in its editing and shot style. Ominously, the influence of Revolver rears its head, and we get a few odd ‘out of body’ moments mixed into the expected fast cutting, stylised atmosphere. It’s an infrequent occurrence though, and never takes on the navel-gazing, smarter-than-thou attitude from that messy previous feature. RocknRolla may well be proclaimed as a ‘return to form’ for a director who has seen both great success and strong derision in equal measure. A good job too, since Ritchie apparently plans a trilogy of stories with this film’s ‘Wild Bunch’. It’s certainly an entertaining couple of hours, and the best thing that Ritchie has done in eight years, but that still leaves it far from perfect. If you hated his early work then stay well away, but for everyone else, this is a partway return to the classic era, and I think you’ll agree that it’s nice to have him back. Safe, but sound.

RocknRolla is on UK general release from September 5th.