[29 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.
A local gang known as the Wild Bunch has been pulling off the odd crime for years. Consisting of One Two, Mumbles, and Handsome Bob, they usually find themselves butting heads with local crime lord Lenny Cole and his right hand man Archie. When a building business deal goes bad, the Bunch find themselves in debt big time - and Cole is holding the bill. So they take a job robbing a Russian financier. Tipped off by his sexy accountant Stella, they succeed in scoring and paying Lenny back. Only problem is, the Russian was doing business with…you guessed it, and now all parties plans are going sour. But that’s not the only problem. Lenny’s estranged son Johnny Quid, an addict ex-rocker, has stolen the Russian’s lucky painting, and won’t give it back.
Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should. It features fascinating performances from a rogue’s gallery of expected talent and twists its fairly straightforward storyline into an often multifarious collection of contrivances. Yet whenever we doubt the narrative, whenever the characters create chaos where a simple set of phone calls or face to face meetings would have sufficed, we get Ritchie’s patented Tarantino-isms, and all is right with the cinematic world. It’s been a while since someone came along with such blatant Pulp fictionalization. That trend seemed to die out during the first half of the second Bush Administration. But Ritchie still revels in it, and after seeing this stunning example of same, who could disagree.
As usual, the director finds a cast who can take his flights of fancy and run like Olympic sprinters. Gerard Butler drops his 300 gruff and turns on the Scot stock charm to give One Two some compelling criminal cheek. His equally impressive accomplice, Idris Elba, makes Mumbles more than just a smooth talking tough. Elsewhere along the mobster bandwagon, Tom Wilkinson goes bald and ballsy as a bribe and buyout businessman who controls the London construction racket, while Mark Strong plays his right hand man muscle. With the added attraction of a seductive Thandie Newton as an untrustworthy bean counter, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Jeremy Pevin as a couple of Yank music managers, and various flawless bit players, Ritchie finds the right individuals for his outsized sense of character.
But it’s Toby Kebbell as former superstar and current junkie Johnny Quid that gives Rocknrolla its titular tidal wave. Walking around like a member of Romero’s zombie horde, and running his mouth in a spellbinding combination of pharmaceutical philosophy and insanity, he steals every scene that he’s in, and even lifts a few in his absence. Quid is Ritchie’s cinematic Ace, a card he plays whenever things get too familiar and unfocused. As he denigrates his fellow crackheads, calling them out for their personality flaws and lack of loyalty, we watch a man slowly destroying himself - and not giving a good goddamn in the process. Kebbell has been impressive before. He was excellent in the Joy Division/Ian Curtis bio-pic Control. But Rocknrolla should be considered his break out role, and as is typical of this kind of splash, he destroys the thing.
It’s a shame that Ritchie lost his way in a private world of public pop star surreality. There are moments in Rocknrolla that remind us of why we championed the English agent provocateur just a few short years ago. When One Two and Mumbles are being pursued by a pair of wacked out Russian assassins, the clever use of close-ups (with what appears to be cameras attached directly to the actors) draws us in to the characters’ foot chase desperation. Similarly, obvious wipes and dissolves distill the numerous competing plotpoints into sketchpad snacks - easily digested and dealt with. The remaining red herrings - what happens to Stella, where Johnny goes post-parental confrontation - are given the tricky “to be continued” treatment. Yet if the next phase of Rocknrolla is as rip-snorting as the first, we won’t really care.
In fact, it’s safe to say that once the tabloids have lost interest in the Kabbalah Queen’s ex and focus instead on where the over the hill femme fame whore is now storing her pointed bras, Guy Ritchie can get back to the business of making the kind of movies that signaled his anarchic arrival in the first place. Some may complain about the pacing, or the incredibly complicated nature of the narrative, but Rocknrolla is the kind of film that gets better as it goes along. It just begs for multiple viewing, if only to catch everything going on. Initially, we are confused by the cheats and swindles. But as the huckster dust clears, Ritchie’s real gifts as a moviemaker help us over the rough bits. They say divorce is always hardest on the kids. Thankfully, film fans seem immune from such custodial horrors. In addition, a newfound clarity usually accompanies any great purge. With Madonna gone, Guy Ritchie is reborn - and Rocknrolla is his bad-ass baptismal.