'RocknRolla' chaos with gangsters
Category: RocknRolla Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: October 31, 2008 | Publication: San Francisco Chronicle | Author: Mick LaSalle
Guy Ritchie's latest lesson in how not to make a movie is called "RocknRolla" and features a bunch of people with English accents trying to rob each other. As in other Ritchie films, "RocknRolla" attempts to depict a world of ever-expanding chaos. But the chaos is only in the way the story is told. The actual vision Ritchie offers is pedestrian and tame.
In fact, the carefully cultivated zaniness is really just a smoke screen to cover sloppiness. Let's just say, for example, that a filmmaker can't tell a story. Let's say that he's hopelessly bereft of that all-important ability. What can he do to compensate? One strategy he might adopt would be to present this incapacity as a style statement, so when the whole movie collapses in a pathetic mess, he can stand back and say, "Cool, huh? I meant that to happen."
Make no mistake, the key problem here is not that Ritchie breaks the rules. Great artists break the rules all the time. The problem is that Ritchie is defeated by the rules. He sets off into the wilderness with neither a map (as in a knowledge of story structure) nor an internal compass (as in talent). And so he ends up lost.
But you deserve some specifics. So here are a few concrete examples of Ritchie's cinematic ineptitude, as much as can be fit in a movie review:
1) Slavish reliance on narration: Ritchie has a big, convoluted story he wants to tell, about real estate scams, but he doesn't have the skill to lay it out for us. So he employs a voice-over narrator, not in the way Woody Allen uses one, to inflect the story, but rather to explain the story. In voice-over, a crooked businessman's right-hand man (Mark Strong) explains his boss' intricate business dealings. It's almost impossible to follow.
What's more, Ritchie uses narration to introduce characters. Forty minutes into the movie, he's still introducing them, telling us how they interrelate with other previously introduced characters. But who can remember them from 20 minutes earlier?
It gets even more ridiculous. Ritchie actually uses narration to tell us what characters think and how we should feel about them. In the opening minutes, he's intent on presenting the businessman villain, played by Tom Wilkinson, as an amazing wheeler-dealer. Instead of showing this, he has the narrator keep telling us about it. So you get a completely bland scene, interspersed with the narrator's assurances that we're seeing demonstrations of street-smart business acumen.
The narration is a crutch, not a stylistic flourish. This is proved by the fact that, once the plot and the characters have been finally, clumsily established, Ritchie drops the narration.
2) Inability to create distinct characters: Ritchie has to tell us who his characters are because he can't show us. And he can't show us because he has nothing to show. His men are either young punks or middle-aged lowlifes, with surly dispositions and working-class accents. As Ritchie goes no deeper than that, telling one from another is difficult. If an actor is famous, it helps. Gerard Butler ("300") has one of the main roles, as one of the scrambling hustlers.
When watching "RocknRolla," as well as other Ritchie movies, the impression is of seeing an inexpert rendering of people and types that Ritchie knows or has seen. But it's all surface, all in-jokes lost in the translation. And the one woman in the movie - a high-level accountant, played by Thandie Newton - is a by-the-books femme fatale. Boring.
3) Inability to film a set piece: If you want to appreciate Quentin Tarantino, check out the scene in which Butler dances with Newton. It's filmed from a bad angle. The image is indistinct. The choreography is lousy, and the scene is repeatedly interrupted. Getting that right should have been easy.
And on and on. As you can see, I've run out of room. Bottom line, "RocknRolla" is a tedious fraud of a film, an elaborate bluff posing as an insider's angle, told in a style that's no style at all, just a lot of flamboyant flailing. And oh, yeah: It ends with the promise of a sequel.