After 2005's delightfully masturbatory chess match/psychological thriller "Revolver" dealt a critical blow to writer/director Guy Ritchie's cinematic allure, it forced the filmmaker to retreat to his established bag of tricks. That said, "RocknRolla" is an invigorating, grimly hilarious return to old Ritchie sensibilities, the director mounting a slingshot crime saga with more gravitas and hangdog heroics than previously seen. It's a familiar surface of sleazebags and double-crosses, but it remains intriguingly affectionate under Ritchie's breezy guidance.
London kingpin Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is facing the waning days of true criminal dominance, trying to slip into bed with shady Russian businessmen (including Karel Rodan) to secure a massive real estate deal. Mixed up in the muck are a mid-level thugs One Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba), and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), a conniving accountant (Thandie Newton), music promoters (Ludacris and Jeremy Piven), Cole's right-hand man Archie (Mark Strong), and junkie musician Johnny Quid (Tony Kebble), who holds the answers to several pertinent underworld mysteries. While all sides tear up the streets in search of money and payback, a special painting is also sought, clouding matters of allegiance and justice further.
The real magic of "RocknRolla" is to watch Ritchie reclaim what so many accused him of losing: his impish awareness of criminal mischief. "Revolver" was an evolutionary piece for the director, attempting to shake off the cobwebs with a spiritually elevated, metaphorical experiment that few (including this critic) could possibly understand to the fullest degree, but it remained a daring pip of a thriller. Prompted by either box office disappointment or exhaustion, Ritchie is back where he began with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," plunging back into the comforting waters of London lowlifes, their difficulties interpreting plans, and the violence that licks the envelope shut.
"RocknRolla" is a hostile ride on the villain carousel, and while many sequences of the film hold generous comedic merit, the rest of the script settles into more uncomfortable places of troubled tone and cumbersome narrative lifting. It wouldn't be Ritchie if the story was a fluid, discernable creation, and the new film fits alongside the rest of his oeuvre by taking the audience on a whiplash ride of coincidences and conflicts, peppered by a rotund cast of criminal flotsam and jetsam threaded throughout the film in a tight weave of thug inhumanity and incompetence. Work from Butler, Strong, and Wilkinson (who chews serious scenery) stand out from the pack, articulating Ritchie's labyrinthine screenwriting with a great degree of panache.
The monologuing and flamboyant brutality (death by crayfish!) flies fast in "RocknRolla," only sharpened here by Ritchie's experience behind the camera. The feature reveals a newfound maturity about the director, yet he still indulges in a grandstanding visual moment or two to keep the energy level up in a film that often sits down for long stretches of exposition. In fact, one of the bravura sequences features One Two chased by unstoppable Russian stooges on a railway, the moment flush with customary danger, yet interestingly interjected with a display of muscle fatigue that lends a standard moment a welcome twist. "RocknRolla" is filled with small touches like that to keep the feature within striking distance of unpredictability.
Perhaps in some respects it's disappointing to watch Ritchie revisit a genre he never truly left behind; "RocknRolla" isn't groundbreaking work quite like "Revolver" (vocal detractors be damned, that movie was gunning for something unique), it's comfort food, executed in a traditional bruiser fashion befitting the Ritchie roll call of rogues.
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