After a couple of missteps in Swept Away and Revolver, Guy Ritchie returns to doing what he does best: telling stories about clever criminals making good in a ridiculous set of circumstances. RockNRolla is classic Ritchie, containing all the good and bad that his movies often entail. But mostly, it’s just feels right that’s he come back to it.
Archie is a gangster who works for Lenny, a crook who specializes in greasing the wheels of government for real estate projects. Lenny is in business with Yuri, a ruthless Russian businessman who needs some help with the local politicians to get his projects through. Yuri is to pay Lenny seven million Euros for his services, but that money gets waylaid by a group of misfits called the wild bunch. Meanwhile, Lenny’s stepson, a presumed dead junkie rock star named Johnny Quid, has stolen a valuable painting that means a whole lot to the Russians. As crook steals from crook and gangster messes with gangster, Archie is left to make sense of it all and get all the right stuff in the right hands.
It’s vintage Guy Ritchie stuff: lots of small time crooks getting caught up in big business and paying for it, often in painful and humorous ways (and often involving unstoppable Russians). It’s the material that gave Ritchie his position in the first place, and it’s still pretty fun to watch. The story does get pretty dense, with too many things happening at once, but if you can keep up, there’s a lot to enjoy. Ritchie’s underworld is filled with fascinating characters, all with different tics and motivations, and it’s these characters that give the film all its flavor. Ritchie will introduce you to a classy information peddler named Tank who watches Remains of the Day and Pride & Prejudice in his car, as well as a ruthless accountant who’s married to a homosexual lawyer out of convenience. The devil’s in the details, and Ritchie’s holding the pitchfork.
Ritchie’s filmmaking is an acquired taste. He has a propensity for self-indulgence, pushing everything with fast cuts and tons of flash. When it works, it’s great, like in a wonderfully economical sex scene that may be one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in a movie in a while. When it doesn’t work, it’s just terrible. There’s a paradox in Ritchie’s filmmaking that I haven’t been able to quite figure out: despite all the quick cutting and fast music, he can still make a movie feel pretty long. Maybe it’s a sense that he’s trying too hard to be cool, or just a byproduct of too many fast cuts. Still, when he gets it right, it’s undoubtedly going to leave a smile on your face.
Guy Ritchie has always had a knack for ferreting out talent. Here, he makes fantastic use of Mark Strong, whose natural class and apparent intelligence makes Archie one of the most formidable gangsters ever committed to screen. It is amazing how much he does with so little. The breakout of this movie is Toby Kebbel, who plays the drug addled rock star stepson Johnny Quid. His performance is absolutely magnetic, even though he has to handle some of the movie’s murkiest lines. Tom Wilkinson is and will always be great. The supporting cast includes some pretty great stuff from Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, and Jeremy Piven, among others. This is solid work from a solid crew of people.
If you’re not a fan of Guy Ritchie’s work, RockNRolla isn’t going to win you over. It’s a lot of his same old tricks, the same old elements that have divided a lot of the film going public. But after suffering through his last two pictures, it’s just nice to see this return to form. Ritchie’s doing what he’s meant to do, for better or worse. For my part, I think it’s for the better.