You'd think that being married to Madonna, Guy Ritchie would have picked up on the value of occasionally reinventing oneself. But no, he keeps making the same movie, the same ultra-cool exercises in British gangster violence and stylish criminal shenanigans, and RockNRolla is the latest entry. Then again, the one time he did try something different, the result was Swept Away, so maybe he's wise to stay in his comfort zone.
At any rate, RockNRolla inspires strong feelings of "meh" in me. It's not nearly as clever, funny, or stylish as Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, though the accents are a lot less indecipherable this time around, so that's nice. It's also not as good as Gangster No. 1 or Sexy Beast or many of the other gritty British gangster capers that have come around in the last several years. It feels like a rerun -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, after all. People watch reruns all the time.
Our narrator is Archie (Mark Strong), who works as the calm, suave right-hand man to Lenny (Tom Wilkinson), the most powerful money-lender and underworld boss in London. Half the city's councilors, judges, and cops are in Lenny's pocket, and he has leveraged this influence into a massive fortune in real estate.
Lenny is not a figure to be messed with, but the Russians don't know that. A new mover and shaker named Uri (Karel Roden) has come to town to strike a deal with Lenny -- it involves paying Lenny to bribe city officials to get a construction project underway -- and he's a formidable figure himself. Lenny is old school; Uri is dangerously modern.
Tangled in this web is an assortment of unsavory characters (all characters in a Guy Ritchie movie are unsavory): Stella (Thandie Newton), a crooked accountant; a crew of robbers and thieves called the Wild Bunch, which includes One Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba), and possibly-gay Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy); and a junkie rock star named Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), who recently fell off a yacht and is presumed dead. Oh, and Johnny Quid's managers, played by Jeremy Piven and Ludacris. Oh, and a priceless painting. Oh, and a guy called Tank who does business out of an SUV and can find out anything you need to know.
It's amusing enough to see all these low-lifes steal from and double-cross one another, but Ritchie's usual bag of cinematic tricks (slow-mos, freeze-frames, flashbacks, etc.) isn't sufficient to breathe new life into this old formula. Most of the characters are just mildly colorful -- only Tom Wilkinson's wily old snake Lenny stands out as a truly memorable creation. It takes a consummate professional like Wilkinson to make Ritchie's well-worn paths seem fresh again; the rest of the cast, game though they may be, are just along for the ride.
I heard a lot of hatred expressed for this film when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, and that perplexes me. It doesn't strike me as the type of film that warrants any passionate feelings one way or the other. It's kind of fun but kind of repetitive; kind of stylish but kind of derivative. What's to hate? On the other hand, what's to love? It'll be a good movie for HBO, where it can be aired repeatedly and you can amuse yourself by watching 15-minute chunks of it here and there.