I went to San Diego last July for Comic Con, which was certainly a unique experience for me. And I'd heard bits and pieces through the years about how it's strayed less from the comic book portion of it and more on the entertainment side. At the 2008 Convention, you had features on the comic-related side (like Watchmen) and those that weren't (Pineapple Express?). I'll go out on a limb and presume that RocknRolla is closer to the non-comic related side of the house, but sometimes that's not necessarily a bad thing, if the subject matter is any good.
The film was written and directed by Guy Ritchie, whose previous film Revolver was a less than stellar film which was rather muddled. This one is a little clearer, as One Two (Gerard Butler, 300) and Mumbles (Idris Elba, The Wire) are shut out of a potential real estate investment by Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton). Lenny owns much of the real estate in downtown London, but a growing surge of international businessmen is starting to test his control of his properties and his power. This is symbolized by a Russian named Uri (Karel Roden, The Bourne Supremacy), who embarks on a deal with Lenny and as a sign of goodwill, decides to lend Lenny a painting that brings Uri luck. That luck goes away however, when Mumbles and One Two rob Uri of some money that's being used to front the deal. They do so with some inside information from Uri's accountant Stella (Thandie Newton, ER). Complicating matters for Lenny is that the painting is stolen. The culprit of the crime is Lenny's stepson, a musician that some fear died, and Johnny's producers Roman (Jeremy Piven, Entourage) and Mickey (Ludacris, Crash) don't know where he is. So Lenny's right hand man Archie (Mark Strong, Sunshine) is enlisted to find the painting while One Two and Mumbles avoid some of Uri's hired help for the money.
I know, a film with gangsters, creative characters names and set in London! Directed by Ritchie, no less! But when you consider that his last couple of films were pretty dreadful, sometimes you need to get back to some familiar footing creatively. And while this feels like more of the same, there are some small wrinkles that show some growth since the days of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Rather than show the characters talk about themselves in such a way that almost makes them come off as arrogant or showy, you're shown what they do in a slightly more modest fashion. Take Bullet Tooth Tony from Snatch, and compare him to some of the characters here, and there's hardly a pages-long, several minute monologue to be had. There's the exotic death or two (Crayfish? Really?), and the occasional editing montage, cleverly done in one love scene, by the way, to get away from the usual particulars about such a scene. But overall, Ritchie's visual style seems to enhance the enjoyment of the film, rather than get in the way of it. It's slightly reminiscent of what David Fincher was doing in the '90s, before he slightly reigned himself in with Zodiac and Panic Room.
While there is progress with Ritchie the visual auteur, Ritchie the screenwriter has more room for improvement. Aside from Swept Away, he's yet to do a film that doesn't have the words "crime" or "London" in the plot synopsis. To his credit, the routines and capers are a little more serpentine than some of his other films, but there's only so many times you can go back to the well before things dry up. That's why seeing him at the helm of the Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law should be interesting. You'd assume the clever camerawork and his traditional storytelling are going to have to be tamped down, so it should prove to be beneficial to his grown as an actor. Even with this slightly recycled script, there are some people who put a lot of effort into it. First off, it's exciting to see Elba using his native Brit tongue again, despite how disarming it might be for those used to him as Stringer Bell. He adapts to the role very well and employs some comic delivery at the right moments. As the official "RocknRolla" in the film, playing Lenny's stepson Johnny, Toby Kebbell (Alexander) is pretty convincing as a junkie, but when he snaps back into a point where action is required, he responds in amazing fashion, and his monologue halfway through the film is both whimsical and insightful. I was very impressed. Overall, RocknRolla is a nice palette cleanser for Ritchie, and hopefully his talent can branch out into different ware.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 2.40:1 1080p presentation of RocknRolla is done with the VC-1 codec and the results are...decent? There's a decided lack of color in the film, and a lot of what occurs is done in dark rooms or in the night sky. Blacks are average, though they tend to lose a little contrast throughout parts of the film. But when the characters get out to the daylight, the scenes are replicated well without any additional white push. The background image depth is solid also; during an early scene with Lenny and Uri at Wembley Stadium, looking at the seats and pitch was nice, though a little on the light side. However, there's a lack of detail though both in the background and to a larger degree in the foreground, that I found disappointing. This was the look that David Higgs was going for in his cinematography? If it was, they could have aimed a little higher.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is a little underwhelming. Dialogue comes through a little soft at times and unbalanced in others. Considering some of the characters have heavy Brit inflections, you're forced to bump up the volume a little bit, and then when an action sequence starts, you're practically jolted from your chair. When the action sequences get going, they're worth the ride. Using the hilariously interminable chase from the Russians as an example, the gunfire sounds crisp over a nice range, with environmental sounds throughout. Low-end fidelity is notable on some of the explosions, and during a separate sequence in and outside of a club that Roman and Mickey own, the music sounds clear as a bell like you're in the middle of it. And when someone outside the club gets whacked, the sounds stay dynamic and free of any issues. Don't get me wrong, as a whole the Blu-ray disc sounds decent; but for a director who incorporates a lot more sound and music into his films, I was expecting a little more.
Ritchie and Strong join up for a commentary that was kind of boring. I sat through his commentary on Revolver and thought it wasn't too bad, but he's a little more jovial with Strong, whom he's worked with several times before and they discuss various off-topic material. Ritchie does point out some occasional shot discussion and storyline recollections, and defining some of the London stuff a little bit further to boot. Aside from the fact that the track was recorded as Ritchie just started production work on the new Sherlock Holmes movie, there wasn't any real information to gather from the track itself. A deleted scene (2:00) is next that's not worth watching, followed by "Blokes, Birds and Backhanders," (15:03), the closest thing to a making-of look at the film that you're going to see. The cast discuss their thoughts on the source material, and Ritchie discusses what he wanted to accomplish in it. Everyone also shares their answers to the question, " What is a RocknRolla?" The cast also share their requisite thoughts on one another, on Ritchie, and how he runs a set, and the piece itself is rather cookie-cutter. "Guy's Town" (8:32) looks at the individual London locations the film shot at, and the older crew share their first memories of some of the locations. Some of Ritchie's interview footage is recycled for this piece for some reason, and the piece itself is cute if you want to see some pieces of London. Trailers for Appaloosa and Body of Lies are next, and a digital copy of the film rounds things out.
While RocknRolla is something we've seen before from Guy Ritchie, it's encouraging that he's returning to a certain level of comfort, along with the fact that he's gained some ground in his film style from the days of Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham. While it's not the best British film crime film I've seen recently, it's an entertaining romp and an interesting story. Technically it's good though not great, and the extras are rather pedestrian, so I'd really couldn't suggest any better than renting it if I were you.