REVIEW: RocknRolla [2008]

“Was it a slow dance?”

Is Guy Ritchie back? Has the impending divorce brought back that violent edge we fans have been missing? I guess it is somewhat idiotic of myself, and others, to dismiss Ritchie as though he’s left the playing field. Sure Swept Away couldn’t have been good as art let alone for his career, but besides that and what some consider a bloated mess in Revolver, Ritchie hasn’t imploded. The guy made two great cockney gangster flicks and with his newest film, RocknRolla, continues the tradition, pulling the train back on its tracks if he ever really derailed at all. I can’t stand people saying that he needs to stop writing the same film over and over again … do you like them? Then who cares? If it works, run with it. Ritchie is skilled enough to create nuance to his tales and despite the good ones all pertaining to the seedy workings of the British underworld, they aren’t carbon copies of each other. RocknRolla shows a definite maturity in style with some brilliant visual sequences and the action/humor/violence fills the screen at every turn.

It is always a pleasure to see the narrator gimmick succeed. The entire story is relayed by Archie, played with gritty toughness by Mark Strong—this guy is everywhere now. He treats us to backstories, flashbacks, and observations on the day-to-day dealings working under London boss Lenny Cole, a volatile Tom Wilkinson, chewing massive amounts of scenery. Strong helps explain the interesting coincidental connections that seem to always occur in the crime world; everyone ends up running into each other at some point. I really believe this one line helped me overlook multiple instances of convenient storyline overlapping, something necessary to be invested in the film. Every criminal onscreen will at some point effect the life of the others, whether intentional, unconsciously, or just by sheer dumb luck. In this way, it all becomes a cohesive whole despite the jumping between character point of views and instances in time. Ritchie seems to have carefully orchestrated it all, uncovering every little detail at just the right moment to the audience, no matter if it occurred before or after what precedes it. We’re shown it all in an order that bolsters the narrative, not necessarily the chronological timeline of those involved.

In that respect, certain characters are brought in and out of the story, showing up to enter our consciousness, but held back until we truly need them. It all begins with the junkie binge of rockstar Johnny Quid, a punk kid at once thought to just be a random slacker until his history is slowly peeled back. Toby Kebbell is a true RocknRolla, living the life of drugs, sex, violence, and anything else he can dip his foot in. My favorite character, by far, Johnny Quid meanders through the lives of everyone else as the one connection common to all. The pithiest junkie I’ve ever seen, the nuggets of wisdom he relates to his pal Pedro are astounding and unpredictable. A screw-up that was raised with every opportunity to wealth is purposely sending his life to the gutter, making his psychobabble and cigarette metaphors that much more entertaining, because he spouts the intellect in a completely cynical, sarcastic manner. The kid is too smart for his own good and we all know his mouth will inevitably get him into trouble … setting up a great elevator monologue towards the end with his ex-agents played nicely by Jeremy Piven and Chris Bridges.

It will be tough to explain details of the plot without risk of spoiling the entire thing. So, in a nutshell, it all revolves around property. Wilkinson’s mob boss controls the planning committees and anyone else necessary for a large real estate deal to run smoothly. He has put himself into business with his Russian equivalent to build a new stadium in London. This interaction brings into play an expensive “lucky” painting that changes hands, two transactions of 7 million Euros intercepted by a ragtag group of lowlifes, and the question of freedom as a commodity being ruined by an unknown informant to the police. Ritchie keeps it all going at a breakneck pace, introducing a new wrinkle just when you think it’s about to slow down. Culminating in a final confrontation with everyone bringing forth the truth of who they truly are. I don’t see how you cannot be entertained by it all.

The cast is stellar throughout. Whether a known or unknown, each adds his own flair to the proceedings, keeping the interest level high. No one really stars; it is a very even-handed ensemble with people coming in and out, doing their thing and stepping back to let everyone else do theirs. Thandie Newton is beautiful and intriguing as a corrupt accountant living a life of convenience, but never happy; Nonso Anozie is really funny as Tank (“Think” Tank) finding all the nefarious doings on the street; Karel Roden shows again why he reigns supreme with Russian villainy; and Gerard Butler, Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy shine as the Wild Bunch, hired muscle to do everyone’s dirty work for them, clueless to the big picture, but having a great time nonetheless. The best part of the film concerns them and the second money heist against a duo of indestructible Russians. Ritchie shoots it very artistically with a handheld camera, jumping and shaking. The close-ups of faces cropped on the far right side, affixed to the actor as he runs is breathtaking. The humor never goes stale, the absurdity of the situation never trumps the fun factor, and the slowed to a crawl end to the chase due to fatigue is fantastic—it has it all, blood, violence, machine guns, physical humor, tempo changes, car crashes, and frenetic editing. This one sequence is the epitome of the film, one that will never leave you bored … unless of course the accents give you trouble, in which case, rent it and use closed-captioning, it’ll be worth it.

RocknRolla 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] TOBY KEBBELL as Johnny Quid in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action film “RocknRolla.” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] THANDIE NEWTON as Stella and GERARD BUTLER as One Two in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action “RocknRolla.” Photo by Alex Bailey


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