Nearly a decade after proving that lightning could indeed strike twice with Snatch -- his giddy, reputation-cementing follow-up to the landmark Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels -- it would seem that Guy Ritchie is finally starting to grow up. Sure, he's still got a good pint of piss in him, but in the wake of such box-office disasters as Swept Away and Revolver, he seems to finally understand that sometimes it pays to exercise a bit of restraint. In the past, the frantic, highly stylized credit sequence that opens RocknRolla would have been indicative of the rest of the movie, and Ritchie would probably have attempted to maintain that manic energy even as the actual story got under way. This tactic can easily backfire when not executed with Ritchie's own level of meticulous skill, but here, the director impresses us in a new way. By subsequently reining in his instincts to dazzle and instead simply allowing the story to get under way, Ritchie lets the audience get acquainted with the characters on their own terms, instead of simply overwhelming viewers with overblown, comic book-style archetypes. The result is a bit of a trade-off, because along with the style, Ritchie's outrageous sense of humor has also been substantially toned down. But while a few more laughs certainly would have benefited a film that favors quirky exchanges over full-blown action, there's still enough playfulness to keep the film from getting bogged down or boring -- by a long shot.
As with the majority of Ritchie's most popular films, the actual plot is somewhat secondary to the manner in which it unfolds. At the center of RocknRolla is a shady land deal being brokered between powerful British gangster Lenny Cole (the compulsively watchable Tom Wilkinson) and his equally fearsome Russian counterpart, Uri (Karel Roden), an enormously wealthy London newcomer looking to cash in on the city's rapidly rising property values. Of course, in order to make such a deal happen, a substantial amount of cash will have to change hands -- a factor that leaves both of the high rollers susceptible to the scheming of one exceptionally creative underworld bookkeeper (Thandie Newton) and a resourceful gang of fearless street criminals known as "The Wild Bunch." Chief among this daring criminal collective is the handsome One Two (Gerard Butler), his best mate, Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), and their trusted felonious friend Mumbles (Idris Elba). With his tenuous partnership with Lenny promising to make both men even more wealthy and powerful than they already are, Uri attempts to sweeten the deal by loaning his new business associate the "lucky painting" that has helped him through some complicated deals, but turns out to be the antithesis of its moniker when it goes missing from Lenny's office and the deal goes south. Meanwhile, junkie rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) may hold the key to locating the painting -- if anyone could actually track him down to inquire about it. The papers have all been rife with stories of Johnny's recent death in a tragic boating accident, though no one who knows the volatile rocker is likely to believe such reports until presented with an actual corpse to back them up. As the Wild Bunch live up to their name by ripping off the wealthiest thugs in the city twice over, Lenny's grip on power begins to slip, and Uri becomes determined to track down his missing painting even if it means killing half the criminals in the London underworld.
The fun of RocknRolla isn't so much in attempting to sort out all the complex details as they unfold at a typically rapid-fire Ritchie pace, but rather sitting back and enjoying the endless series of double-crosses, close calls, and playful interactions among the colorful cast of characters. Even more so than with Ritchie's previous work, those characters actually display a trace amount of depth, rather than simply delivering a series of clever one-liners. It seems to be as much a testament to Ritchie's faith in those characters as it is in his growth as a filmmaker; a revelatory scene between One Two and Handsome Bob early on pays off later down the line when we learn the actual depth of their longtime friendship, and a scene in which a strung-out Johnny Quid espouses the existential values of a simple pack of cigarettes hints that he even has more going on upstairs than the man who seems to control the entire city. Heady moments notwithstanding, when the action gets rolling during a late-film heist gone hilariously awry, there's little doubt that the man who delivered two of the most entertaining British gangster flicks of the last decade is still capable of marrying violence with humor in a way that few filmmakers can. When Ritchie is inspired, the results can be genuinely entertaining, and if RocknRolla is to be trusted, the director is relying less on his old bag of tricks and more on his expanding abilities as a storyteller -- not just a story stylist. Here's to hoping that, at least in Ritchie's case, maturity and inspiration aren't mutually exclusive.
RocknRolla on AllMovie