3.5 out of 5 Stars
Why does director Guy Ritchie keep making the same movie over and over? After storming onto the scene with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000), the British director can’t seem to get enough of violent, darkly comic crime capers. Maybe it’s because any time he tries to branch out to something else, the results blow up in his face (like the Madonna vanity project “Swept Away”). Maybe it’s because he’s sick of seeing fellow crime directors like Roger Donaldson (“The Bank Job”) and best friend Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”) receive massive accolades for mimicking his exact style.
Or maybe Ritchie keeps making the same movie because he knows it’s just so much damn fun to watch.
As case in point, his new film “RocknRolla” adds little to its established genre, but it’s absolutely balls-to-the-wall entertaining for almost all of its two-hour run time. Like Ritchie’s other works, much of the plot of “RocknRolla” is deliberately incomprehensible. Yet there’s an implicit understanding between the filmmaker and the audience that we’re not supposed to make sense of everything. The actors carry such a goofy brand of intensity and the hyperkinetic direction is always so precisely focused that the film makes us believe we know what’s going on even when we don’t — which is most of the time.
Gerard Butler (“300”) has the typical Jason Statham role as the gritty antihero, a thug named One Two who rounds up a motley crew to make easy money in the aftermath of a real-estate scam. Orchestrating the whole shebang is criminal overlord Lenny Cole, played with scenery-chewing glee by Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”). Beyond this point, affairs get a little hazy. Though the storyline starts out convoluted, it thankfully becomes more manageable once its outer elements are stripped away.
Eventually, all the characters end up frantically searching for the same thing: a pivotal “lucky painting.” Like the briefcase from “Pulp Fiction,” the audience never gets to see it. The painting becomes a an element of no purpose that the characters only search for to move the plot forward. Also factoring into the equation is a group of Russian mobsters (it’s always the Russians); there is a running joke that nothing can kill them. The gag is played up during an extended action sequence that seems a strong homage to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Yes, many of the film’s elements are cribbed from existing source material, but Ritchie is so good at creating these kinds of hodgepodges that it never feels stock.
“RocknRolla” also has something not often seen in these types of movies: a coming-out scene. One Two’s best friend, Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy, “Marie Antoinette”), shows supreme boldness by revealing where he’d really like their relationship to go. It’s a scene of surprising vulnerability staged in classic Guy Ritchie style (meaning there’s a lot of yelling and swearing, followed by begrudged understanding and an out-of-nowhere punch line). Bob’s portrayal in the film is refreshing; he steals cars and isn’t afraid to shoot people in the face. And he also happens to be gay.
Despite the film’s purposeful throw-everything-at-the-screen aesthetic, there are still instances when far too much is happening. The titular “rocknrolla” (Toby Kebbell, “Control”), oddly enough, doesn’t seem to fit very well into the movie at all; most of his scenes are shot in isolation from the rest of the characters. Continuing Ritchie’s trend of bizarre casting choices for his American roles, Ludacris (“Max Payne”) and “Entourage” ’s Jeremy Piven turn in wooden performances as a pair of recording execs. Perhaps most distressing of all, the stunningly beautiful Thandie Newton (“W.”) doesn’t receive nearly enough screen time as the only prominent female character, a flirty accountant. It’s a shame, too, because in her ’60s bob, she’s a dead ringer for a Motown diva.
In the end, the selling point of “RocknRolla” is its familiarity. That may sounds like a counterintuitive argument for critics of an industry overrun by shameless derivations, but maybe a good ole Guy Ritchie film is just the sort of thing we need right now.