September 5, 2008 / 1:36 AM / 10 years ago

"RocknRolla" finds Ritchie back with a vengeance

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - First the good news: Guy Ritchie is back. Then the even better news: Guy Ritchie is back with his most accessible and enjoyable film yet in “RocknRolla.”

After getting swept off course by Madonna (“Swept Away”) and pretension (“Revolver”), the English writer-director, who in the late ‘90s invented a new form of criminally funny pulp fiction set in an exaggerated London underworld, returns to this gangland with renewed vigor. It’s all here: the ingenious, obscenity-laced language, the double-crosses that turn into triple-crosses, the swaggering characters so in love with themselves. GottaLove “RocknRolla!”

Which also is good news for Warner Bros. when the distributor releases the dark crime comedy nationally October 8. Although pitched more toward males, the film contains one deliciously duplicitous turn by Thandie Newton that might touch more than a few female viewers’ inner gangster.

The London underworld to which Ritchie returns looks very much the same but somehow different. For one thing, that skyline is changing constantly thanks to the upsurge in skyscrapers and property values, which is what Ritchie’s story revolves around. For another, a nouveau riche idea of swank has invaded the new East London commercial complexes, and the place is full of Russian and Eastern European businessmen.

“RocknRolla” throws three distinct branches of criminals against one another. Old School, with its network of on-the-take bureaucrats, crooked politicians and backdoor fixers, is represented by Tom Wilkinson’s merciless mobster and his right-hand man, Mark Strong. New School is Karel Roden’s Russian billionaire, backed by a willingness to use physical violence that makes Old School look as if Mary Poppins were its headmistress.

Finally, there’s the Wild Bunch, the kind of small-timers who populated Ritchie’s earlier gangster films and who are hungry to challenge the raised bar of the crime world. These include Gerard Butler, more handsome than he is smart, but he’s learning, and his longtime mates Idris Elba and Tom Hardy. The wild card is a real rock ‘n’ roller — Toby Kebbell’s missing and presumed dead punk rocker who happens to be Wilkinson’s most estranged stepson.

The Russian comes to Wilkinson to get a building project past the red tape. The Russian’s favorite painting goes missing, his accountant is tipping off a few lowlifes, the Russian blames the mobster, who in turn pressures his aids, and somehow the dead rocker has the painting. Then Butler makes a startling discovery about his best mate.

The movie, narrated like a graphic comic — as Ritchie tends to do — spins off in many directions, and afterward you realize there were several spins and scenes more than necessary. You get the feeling that when Ritchie as a writer hits on a great scene, Ritchie the director can’t bring himself to cut it.

It’s all worth it, though, for a sequence like the Wild Bunch’s attempt to snatch a fortune in cash from the Russian’s guards, who chase the trio over half of London like the indestructible killing machines they are. And then there’s Newton, who is playing so many angles that the only side you know for sure she’s on is her own.

The film is executed with visual panache, its action slowed or speeded up to suit the moment and color drains here and there to cast London, whether in daylight or in shadow, into a permanent midnight. It’s as if the East End were a huge nightclub or perhaps videogame with a surreal overlay of real and imagined locations and seductive decadence.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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