Guy Ritchie is one of those directors whose work you either love or hate. I know people who absolutely revere the slick style of his tough-guy stories. Personally, though, I've always found Ritchie's work to be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing (as the old saying goes). Technically speaking, I think that RocknRolla - which hits DVD on January 27 - is his best film to date, but then again almost anything is better than Snatch or Swept Away. While by no means a terrible picture, it suffers the same style-over-substance problem that, to my mind, has plagued all of Ritchie's work.
At least it has a great cast (i.e. no Madonna). The fantastic Tom Wilkinson plays Lenny Cole, a London gangster who screws over two small-potatoes criminals, nicknamed One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba). Cole then tries to screw over a Russian mobster named Uri Obomavich (Karel Roden) who is interested in doing some local business. The Russian has an accountant, Stella (Thandie Newton), who is looking to make a score of her own. She hires a couple of goons to swipe the cash Uri is supposed to pay to Cole. Guess who the goons are. You got it - One Two and Mumbles. But then someone steals the "lucky painting" that Uri loans to Cole. The thief turns out to be Cole's son, drug-addicted rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). If the painting is not retrieved, then Uri will go postal on Cole, further souring an already rancid deal. The key to finding Johnny Quid, who hasn't been seen in months and is presumed dead, rests with his former record producers (Jeremy Piven and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges).
Can you see the problem with RocknRolla? Some movies go off on tangents. This movie is nothing but tangents. If my synopsis sounds confusing or disjointed, that's because the film plays out in such a manner. There really is not a "plot" here; RocknRolla is merely a series of situations that twist around and double back on themselves until everything is twisted into a knot. Again, in fairness, some viewers like this kind of thing. I don't have anything against the format per se, although I think some filmmakers are more skilled practitioners of it than others. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, can jumble time frames and multiple scenarios like a master juggler, all without ever sacrificing narrative cohesion. Ritchie, on the other hand, seems content to posture, as though hurling a ton of "attitude" and "plot twists" onto the screen is somehow sufficient. I don't buy it, nor have I ever bought the director as a credible purveyor of the criminal underworld. (Seriously, can you think of a famous filmmaker who personally seems less badass than Guy Ritchie?)
What I liked about RocknRolla - and what will probably lead it to find its audience on DVD - is the cast. Ritchie is smart enough to hire good actors for his films, and he outdoes himself this time. Wilkinson, Butler, and Elba are all solid performers who are generally incapable of being dull onscreen. Each of them is clearly relishing the chance to play thugs of varying magnitude. Piven, Bridges, and Newton are strong supporting players, as is Mark Strong, who gives the best performance as Cole's right-hand man, Archy. This character is kind of the moral center of the movie (or, at least, as much of a moral center as a gangster pic can have). Archy is just as capable of violence as anyone, yet he sees through the emotions of everyone else and responds with cool, clinical logic.
I also give Ritchie credit for his visual style. Yes, it overpowers everything else - and fails to compensate for the lack of real storytelling - but that doesn't mean that RocknRolla isn't a cool film to look at. Using inventive camera angles, rapid-fire editing, and other visual trickery, the director creates a picture that bursts at the seams with energy.
My guess is that the visual energy is what Guy Ritchie's fans respond most to. I kind of get it; that type of thing can be fun. However, I wish he'd ease up a bit. RocknRolla has moments of humor to match its good performances and interesting look. I just think that the movie is too overstuffed. It needed about half the characters it had, plus a more contained plot. I mean it as a compliment when I say that I didn't hate RocknRolla as much as Ritchie's other films. If nothing else, it represents progress. Now here's hoping that the filmmaker continues to hone his skills so that one day he may produce a piece of work strong enough to warrant all the hype that some people have already put on him.
( out of four)
RocknRolla hits DVD and Blu-Ray on January 27. You can purchase it on a single disc in widescreen format, or in a 2-Disc Digital Copy Edition.
Special features on the DVD start off with audio commentary from Guy Ritchie and actor Mark Strong, who chat amiably but get caught up watching their own movie part way through.
"Guy's Town" is a look at how London has changed over the years, and how that inspired Ritchie in the conception of the film. Several key locations are highlighted. This feature runs about eight minutes. There is also a 2-minute deleted scene that is most notable for having Gerard Butler running on a treadmill the entire time. Finally, if you buy the two-disc set, a digital copy of the movie is also included.
RocknRolla is rated R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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