Like a breath of very rude fresh air comes Guy Ritchie’s new film RocknRolla: a nonstop parade of improbable dastardly characters, assorted incompetent criminals, burned-out rockers, wigged-out junkies, criminal masterminds and dimwitted hoods—and that’s not even taking into account unkillable Russians, an ice queen of a duplicitous accountant, gay gangsters and the gangsters they make nervous, plus a few man-eating crayfish tossed in for good measure. In other words, welcome back to the world of Guy Ritchie as it stood back in 2000 with Snatch. After the twin debacles of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005), it’s a joy to find the former “Mr. Madonna” at the top of his game with the stylishly outrageous and outrageously stylish RocknRolla.
RocknRolla is not a film for everyone. And thank God for that! It’s a film that will exasperate as many people as it will delight. First of all, it’s very British, which tends to make the dialogue difficult to follow for some American viewers—something that’s exacerbated by the use of Brit-underworld argot. In other words, there are occasions when even if you understand what’s being said, you might not immediately catch the meaning. However, unless you’re an utterly passive viewer, chances are you can figure most of it out from the context. More than that, however, the story line is a quirky affair, with a string of characters whom no one would be apt to call “normal.” That can either be a plus or a minus, depending entirely on your personal preferences.
Persons who use the largely meaningless term “self-indulgent” as a pejorative assessment (one that can be made against any personal filmmaker you care to name) will undoubtedly trot out that charge. Ritchie has himself gone on record that RocknRolla is deliberately “the kind of film I like,” going so far as to say that he made the film for himself. Realistically, this should raise the question as to just how a film can be expected to do anything for an audience if it doesn’t do something for the guy who made it? The alternative approach is a cynical construct, predicated entirely on what the filmmaker—or worse, a focus group—thinks other people will like. I’ll take self-indulgence any day.
The plot of RocknRolla is a little on the labyrinthian side, but that’s mostly owing to the number of characters and the details. The story itself is a pretty straightforward one concerning old-school Brit gangsters (personified by Tom Wilkinson’s crime boss Lenny Cole and his underlings) and the new influx of Russian gangsters (represented by Karel Roden’s Uri and his underlings). It all concerns millions of Euros in payoffs for a crooked land deal—with said payoffs being hijacked twice by the same inept crooks, thanks to the inside information provided by Uri’s less-than-honest accountant, Stella (Thandie Newton). Add in Uri’s “lucky painting,” which he’s given to Lenny for luck, and which has been subsequently stolen by Lenny’s crackhead rock ‘n’ roll star stepson, the supposedly dead Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell, Match Point), and that’s the basic story. The convoluted quality is simply a by-product.
The results are a richly entertaining work that overflows with stylish set pieces (including what is easily the funniest and most economical sex scene ever committed to film) and often likable eccentric characters. Our heroes—such as they are—are the trio of less-than-stellar crooks, One Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy, Marie Antoinette). This is an odd grouping if ever there was one, not in the least because Handsome Bob is gay and in love with One Two, who, until about 15 minutes into the film, has lived in apparently willful ignorance of his best friend’s leanings and desires. (The upshot of all this is funny, then charming, then a bit sad, then funny again, before moving into a kind of delightful ambiguity that extends through most of the end credits.) Our villains can be very villainous indeed, but they’re only marginally more competent than our heroes. It all plays out as twisted fun.
It can be argued that RocknRolla leans heavily on Ritchie’s earlier Brit-criminal-world comedy thrillers, and that’s true. The unstoppable—seemingly unkillable—Russian gangsters here aren’t very much different than Boris the Blade (Rade Serbedzija) in Snatch, while Lenny and his crayfish aren’t too far removed from Snatch‘s Brick Top (Alan Ford) and his pigs. But what of it? It worked before, and it works here—maybe even better. In any case, I haven’t had so much pure fun at a movie—both as entertainment and as brilliant filmmaking—in months. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality.