dir: Guy Ritchie
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I wish I could say that RocknRolla is a return to form, finally, for the guy who hasn’t made a decent flick since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And, in fact, I can say it. It is a return to form. The problem is, the movie is still a total fucking mess. The difference is that compared to his other recent movies, it’s an entertaining mess.
Lock, Stock’s supreme virtue is that it was Ritchie’s first flick, so it was the first time we saw him do his shtick, and, on the most part, we liked it. Everything he’s done since then has either been a dull retread or a painful revelation of how little he brings to the directorial table. Don’t ever watch his stupid flick called Revolver. You’ll kill someone afterwards if you do. Possibly even a puppy.
RocknRolla possesses all the negative elements typifying Ritchie’s work (more characters than a Tolstoy novel, overbearing voiceover narration, bad Cockney accents, nonsensically convoluted plots, painful machismo, amateurish reliance on coincidence ex machina and characters doing shit that makes no sense in order to allow the next cavalcade of fun to begin), but it has a few sequences of humour, brutality or wit enough to almost justify the two hours I spent in these retarded people’s company.
A group of crims calling themselves the Wild Bunch somehow get possession of a building. Another old school Kray Twins ripoff called Lenny, who styles himself the underworld king of London (Tom Wilkinson), rips off two of the Wild Bunch, being One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), scams them out of the building, and convinces them that they now owe him 2 million euro through some idiotic scheme involving a councillor (Jimmy Mistry) with development approval.
Lenny enters into partnership with a Russian mobster/businessman, who he intends to sell the property he scammed the other guys out of. The Russian (Karel Roden), very much wanting the business deal to come to fruition, loans his priceless lucky painting to Lenny as a gesture of good faith. Whenever the Russian tries to physically transfer the money Lenny requires, by some coincidence, One Two and Mumbles end up ripping the accountants transporting the money off through the collusion of the Russian’s accountant, an icy femme fatale who consorts with crims because she’s bored (Thandie Newton). Oh, yeah, that old chestnut.
All of this running around, scamming and derring-do is pretty much empty window-dressing. It’s low-level and low-imagination heist dynamics with nothing at stake and a jumbled way of putting its non-existent point across. All the while, there are precisely three million other things all going on concurrently, all of which are happening or being done by so many characters, none of which exist in anything beyond a second dimension, and few of whom have enough screen time to be memorable.
I found myself saying at several points “I know rapper Ludacris and Jeremy Piven are in this, and I know there’s something going on about a painting, but other than that, why is any/all of this happening?”
Oh, yeah, the painting. The classic maguffin, the Hitchcockian plot device which is meant to drive the plot but which is inherently irrelevant in and of itself. The painting goes from person to person, with little logic, but with what Ritchie hopes is going to be perceived as some kind of existential, cosmic humour.
Instead, the way the plot haphazardly lurches about, as coincidence piles on top of coincidence, we realise that Ritchie might know how to write some canny, amusing dialogue, that he might be able to stage an interesting action sequence, but that he has no fucking idea how to tell a story or how to put a film together.
He can come up with a story, at least a compelling one, but he clearly, despite the two hour running time, doesn’t know how to tell it. And what happens in his plots happens only because he can’t imagine a better way for the movie to get to its next stage.
Gerard Butler, of screaming Spartan King Leonidas 300 fame, might appear to be the main character, but he’s just one of dozens of people in the flick, and probably doesn’t have the majority of the screen time. As One Two he’s amusing enough, but he doesn’t have enough to do. He does have a bravura sequence where he and his buddies try to pull a second heist on the Russians, and it’s probably the best part of the flick, but the rest is such a muddle that I ended up feeling sorry for him.
And whilst he has a funny dancing / fucking scene with Thandie Newton, more of his screen time is wasted by a pointless subplot where he deals with his own, and presumably Guy Ritchie’s homophobic / gay panic issues. A truly wretched part of the film, let me tell you, which is only slightly redeemed by its resolution by Idris Elba, who is way too good to be in this flick.
The second robbery sequence, seeing as it involves some hardcore Russian Chechnya veterans / mercenaries, their relentless dedication to getting the job done, and the tremendously wonderful use of The Scientists’ We Had Love is as good as the film gets in a dynamic sense, when the stakes actually feel high and the film actually feels energetic. It’s a tremendous sequence, and I felt somewhat depressed afterwards when I realised the flick wasn’t going to rise to that level ever again.
It doesn’t last long, and the film returns to the syrupy quagmire that it starts and ends in. What’s strangest for me is that much of the film’s voiceover narration, spoken by Lenny’s right hand man Archie (the always excellent in anything apart from this flick Mark Strong) is used very often not to any real purpose, but to hide the fact that much of the flick is taken up with dull dialogue delivered in a dull fashion. After a dull passage of Lenny dialogue, the narration kicks in saying only to us “You’ve got to hand it to Lenny, he really knew what he was doing.” This is done several times, and what it’s really trying to say is, “This bit isn’t as boring as you think it is.”
Fuck you, Guy Ritchie. Your murky storytelling is as bad as we think it is, and all the voiceovers in Christendom can’t obscure the fact that you can’t edit yourself or tell a story properly.
Still, there is one of the movie’s many threads that has a tiny amount of resonance for me, and it doesn’t involve any of the thousands of people already mentioned. Lenny’s hated stepson Johnny Quid (Tony Kebbell), happens to be something of a rock singer, but he also happens to be a degenerate junkie. He, as is the wont of British films depicting junkies post-Trainspotting, something of an intellect and philosopher, and, I’m ashamed to admit this considering how much I’ve trashed this worthless film so far, an amazing character. If the film, which he is interjected into through having stolen the maguffin painting so desired by the Russians and everyone else, has actually been about him, it would have been far more enjoyable. For such a fucked up character, he was magnetic and compelling like nothing and no-one else in this flick.
The same character, though played by a younger actor, has another good scene which highlights the lifelong enmity existing been Johnny and his stepfather Lenny, as child Johnny sings in front of a mirror and fantasises about being the rocker he’d become, singing along to The Clash’s Bank Robber. Yes, it’s a classic song, with its opening lyrics being My daddy was a bank robber/ but he never hurt nobody. Great song, that. Lenny shows us just what a scumbag he truly is in that scene, moreso than in any other where he’s acting the tough nut and abusing the Cockney language.
Johnny also gets to have a strangely enjoyable scene explaining the nature of cigarette packet advertising and the nature of his addiction whilst playing the piano. Oh, and he seems to have a penchant for killing people with a pencil, something which, given the circumstance, belies the story’s contention that Johnny is a rock star, since nothing happens because of it and no-one recognises him despite the hundreds of people surrounding him in public.
Still, Ritchie isn’t content with making Johnny interesting in ways an audience can relate to, and he uses him in an even dumber fashion to cap off the film, where Johnny becomes both psychic and an expert gunman for no reason comprehensible to me or even Johnny, probably.
See, reading this implies there’s a section of the flick you might enjoy, but you have to remember that there’s a whole lot of busy nonsense going on at the same time, getting this creaky, unwieldy and progressively less believable story to its messy and arbitrary conclusion. The movie feels and ends like there are huge chunks missing, but since it’s already two hours long, I can’t imagine sitting through even more of Ritchie’s crap.
Even though I’ve spent a long time castigating the flick and Ritchie specifically, despite how desperately inept much of the plot is, I have to say that I did wring a modicum of enjoyment out of it. I shouldn’t have, but there you have it. There are enough moments which almost made up for the ineptness of the other crap, and even the charming ineptness of the bits it almost gets right. There’s a lot to dislike, but enough to like.
It doesn’t mean I think the world needs any more Guy Ritchie flicks. The ending of this movie threatens a sequel to be called The Real RocknRolla, but I’m content to leave such fancies in the ethereal wonderland where they belong, as too should any future work of Ritchie’s. Still, there are probably worse flicks to waste your time on. Isn’t there a Transformers sequel coming out any day now?
6 more movies Guy Ritchie makes before he realises no-one cares anymore out of 10
“Oh, beauty is a beguiling call to death and I'm addicted to the sweet pitch of its siren, and that which starts sweet ends bitter, and that which starts bitter ends sweet.” – huh? - RocknRolla