By Jack Rico
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Guy Ritchie made his mark for film-goers not by marrying one of the world’s most visible pop stars, but by crafting Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He exploded onto the cinematic scene with the former; the reaction from Hollywood was so ecstatic that the latter became virtually a higher-budget remake of its predecessor. Still, while the two may co-mingle in the memory, both are entertaining in their own right. After that, Ritchie began believing his press about doing no wrong and went off the deep end. His most recent features illustrate how badly he has miscalculated his aptitude. Swept Away, a horrific remake of the Lina Wertmuller masterpiece starring the aforementioned pop star, and Revolver, were unmitigated disasters – seen by few and liked by almost none. RocknRolla is Ritchie’s attempt to return to his roots: rough and tumble action, convoluted plots, and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. All of these things are on exhibit in RocknRolla, but they do not flow smoothly. They feel forced and unnatural, as if Ritchie is keenly aware of what needs to do to placate the naysayers but can’t put everything together in a way that recaptures the magic. As punchy and energetic as the first few moments are, the rest of the film quickly falls back into mediocrity.
The story, as one might expect, features a congregation of bad guys who sleaze around London’s underworld. They include a boss played by a scenery-chewing Tom Wilkinson (an actor who can be sublime or over-the-top – whatever the role requires), a two-bit thug portrayed by Gerard Butler, and a femme fatale in the person of Thandie Newton. The narrator is Mark Strong who, through a quirk of scheduling, is appearing in two movies released this weekend. (The other being Body of Lies.) There are various double-crosses, a Maguffin in the form of a painting we never see, and a Russian land developer who hires some unsavory underlings. Throw in a junkie ex-rock star and a posse of tough guys, and you have typical Ritchie territory. Plot threads entwine and overlap and, in the end, it all comes together. There’s some torture, lots of shooting, and a couple characters get their just desserts. Yet, when the end credits roll, instead of shouting, “Damn, that was cool!” there’s a desire to yell, “Damn, that was lame!” It’s all perfunctory and feels far too contrived and scripted.
RocknRolla has a few high octane moments: the opening credits, which are loud and boisterous and promise more than the film delivers; a caper-gone-wrong that finds the right mixture of comedy and action; and a uniquely edited sex scene that gives new meaning to the phrase “Wham, bam, thank you, Ma’am.” Unfortunately, the things that work are outnumbered by those that don’t. Some of the “clever” bits, such as the big, black thug who understands culture and art, are clichés. Maybe once, long ago, they wouldn’t have been but that’s what happens when something has become overexposed through overuse. The movie spins out of control when it begins to focus on the rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), whose presence in the film serves only to add another layer of complications to an already convoluted plot. The involvement of people like Johnny diverts the story from the more interesting characters. Get us back to Wilkinson, Butler, and especially Newton.
RocknRolla often feels more like a parody of a Guy Ritchie film than a real movie. Lock, Stock and Snatch both rolled along like bizarre cinematic Rube Goldberg machines where the endings justified the convulsions needed to get to that point. RocknRolla breaks down along the way and the ending is so anti-climactic that it leaves one wondering: “Is that all?” Based on the evidence at hand, one can safely state that Ritchie is a one-note director. With RocknRolla, that note is off-key.