A film review by Craig J. Koban

ROCKNROLLA jjj

2008, R, 117 mins.

One Two: Gerard Butler / Lenny: Tom Wilkinson / Stella: Thandie Newton / Handsome Bob: Tom Hardy / Roman: Jeremy Piven / Johnny Quid: Toby Kebbell / Mickey: Chris "Ludacris" Bridges 

Written and directed by Guy Ritchie

For those of you Guy Ritchie apologists out there that reaped him with praise for SNATCH and LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, but were really crying foul over his last two films, the borderline incomprehensible REVOLVER and the dreadfully miscalculated SWEPT AWAY, then…no need to turn in your fan club membership just yet.  

His newest blast of adrenaline-spiked masochism affectionately called ROCKNROLLA will certainly appease those that have thought that the eclectic and stylish filmmaker has all but lost his cinematic mojo.  Although very far from perfect, the film is kind of nifty, fun, hip, and breezy, and easily digestible, in an unhealthy, junk food kind of way.

I thought that Ritchie could do no wrong after his first two hyper-stylized, wonderfully lurid, and darkly funny pictures, but after seeing the disaster that was SWEPT AWAY, I was whistling a tune of disgust.  That film not only had the gall to star Madonna (current former Mrs. Ritchie), but it also was a horrible wrong sighted remake of a 1974 Lina Wertmuller hit of the same name.  Next came REVOLVER (still unseen by me), a film that - I have been told on good faith by filmgoing friends I trust – was an inept mess and monumentally confusing to viewers.  Maybe it was good of me to not see that 2007 film, as I certainly have no pleasure in seeing promising directorial talents sink to the lowest fathoms of mediocrity after a series of excellent first efforts (see M. Night Shyamalan).

ROCKNROLLA is a honest and sincere attempt on Ritchie's part to forget past movie sins that he has committed and instead go back to basics: a crime caper laced with laconic characters, delightfully twisted and convoluted schemes that character engage in to royally screw one another, crisp and jarring dialogue exchanges, stylistic flourishes, and some well placed dark comedy.  To call ROCKNROLLA yet another flat, dime-a-dozen PULP FICTION wannabe would be apt – Ritchie’s film, especially when compared in the same company of SNATCH and LSTSB, does not reinvent the wheel the same way Tarantino’s flick did.  Furthermore, sometimes the worst thing an ailing and down on his luck filmmaker could do is to revisit the well of old ideas for one last hurray.  Yet, Ritchie does go back to the well and in this case his regurgitation of past successfully ingredients – albeit lacking in subtlety and innovation – works successfully for the most part.  I may not have left ROCKNROLLA appreciating its creativity, but the overall film has a gnarly spunk and subversively wicked edge. 

Ritchie’s caper fiction concerns both the Russian and the London mafia that both try to desperately cheat and steal from one another.  It has his usual suspects of both smart and dumb blokes, a couple of wise old mob bosses, a presumed dead rock n’ roll star, a slinky and sexy accountant, and – oddly enough – combines them all in an underlining story that concerns a lucrative real estate deal and a very priceless and “lucky” painting that everyone seems to either have or want their hands on at one point or another.  Also thrown in for good measure are the predicable series of dastardly double-crosses, bold threats, bullets and mayhem…all done with Ritchie's trademark self-congratulatory indulgence…but indulgence that is not beyond redemption here.

The cast is a hoot too:  First, we get the always terrific Rom Wilkinson, who really sinks his teeth into Lenny Cole, a UK gangster that engages in a lucrative land deal with another Russia Mafioso named Uri Obamavich (the steely eyed Karel Roden).  The plot does get thorny and complicated from hero out:  A man named One-Two (Gerard Butler, affectionately macho and buffoon-like all in the same here), Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) borrow $7 million from Cole to purchase some land.  Secretly, Cole actually owns the land and refuses to sell it to them.  Strangely, Cole decides that he wants to steal the loaned money back and demands then demands his loot back from the trio.  Still with me?  Good.

Now, Uri begins to negotiate a shady real estate deal of his own with Cole and, in good faith, offers him a bit of good faith and security in the form of his self-professed “lucky" painting (which, like all good MacGufifns, is never really seen, but just simply an object of desire for most of the characters).  Now, there is also a desires femme fatale (Thandie Newton, filling the requirements of her limited role with great ease), who actually works as Uri’s accountant and hires One Two and Mumbles to steal Cole’s $7 million.  Before you begin to scratch your head and say “Huh?” the plot soon spirals out of control with a series of double crosses on top of double crosses, too many to keep adequate count, where the money seems to be in everyone’s hands.  Not only that, but there’s the case of that pesky good luck painting that Cole loses and then spends the film looking for.  Hmmmm…maybe he should look towards his drug-addicted stepson named Johnny Quid (the RocknRolla of ROCKNROLLA, Toby Kebbell). 

The biggest problem with ROCKNROLLA is that it’s simply too damn confusing for its own good.  The script is almost tortuously complicated and difficult to follow at times, not to mention that there should have been some sort of telestrator-like graphic on the screen to help indicate who’s who, and they relate to one another, and what their respective motives are.  Characters (like Newton’s sultry accountant) appear and disappear at will (often when the screenplay finds it convenient) and other characters are brought on board without bringing anything tangible to the story (two characters played by Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges and the always inspired – but woefully underused here – Jeremy Piven, seem like afterthoughts).  There is a nagging sense that the film is too overstuffed for its own good.  There is nothing inherently wrong with an ambitious script, but ROCKNROLLA is simply too much of a mish-mash job of half-baked ideas, story threads, and characters.  With a bit more polish (and perhaps a script re-write), the film could have been more slick, cohesive and enjoyable. 

Yet, no matter how utterly convoluted and manically all-over-the narrative map the film is, ROCKNROLLA is agreeably slick, fast paced, and more grimly funny and entertaining than I was expecting.  The film is almost like a junkie at times: hyperactive and adrenaline-charged, and always frenetic and spirited.  Ritchie’s true calling – even if it’s not narrative consistency – is his tactful knack for balance bloody carnage and action with bleak and black humor.  Three scenes in particular are real howlers: One occurs when One Two and Mumbles pull of a carjacking that is borderline pacifistic and a later scene involves perhaps the longest, wackiest, and strangest foot chase in many a moon.  One Two in particular is being relentlessly perused by an unstoppable Russian hooligan that, not matter how hard he hits him, continues on to peruse well past the point of normal human endurance and toughness.  Scenes like that play for big, broad laughs and are inspired, but perhaps the single most brilliant (and funny) sequence in the film is a key sex scene, and the way Ritchie films and edits it gives a new meaning to the word minimalist.  I love it when a film is able to take scenes that have been done a million times before and give them a refreshing new luster.

The performances are also very decent.  I especially loved Tom Wilkinson’s teeth-clenched and agitated London mob boss, who comes across as both scary and inept (a difficult tandem, to be sure).  Gerard Butler also finds a nice balance playing streetwise toughness alongside a light-hearted awkwardness (look at one scene where he discovers the sexual orientation of his partner in crime and you’ll see what I mean).  Toby Kebbell is wonderfully loopy and crazed as the frequently stoned rock star, and BODY OF LIES’ Mark Strong – playing the second in command to Wilkinson’s Cole – gives a new definition of cool playing his role with a detached level of menace. 

I guess, when all is said and done, that I liked all of ROCKNROLLA’s joyous energy, its flashy spunk and style, and its truly morbid sense of humor more than I did its script deficiencies.  Yes, Ritchie’s film certainly is crammed to the rafters with too many characters, too many perplexing story arcs, and a lack of structure throughout.  Yet, you kind of leave the theatre admiring it as a sensationalistic punked-out crime thriller that has a boisterous tempo and a somewhat infectiously fun vibe.  ROCKNROLLA is agreeably hip and cool, and even when Ritchie is clearly guilty of pouring on too many indulgent touches for his own good at times, he nevertheless crafts a jolting, colorful, and dourly hilarious caper thriller.  The film’s potential is only moderately realized by Ritchie, but after two grievous duds on his directorial resume, ROCKNROLLA is a modestly satisfying return to form.

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