As a gangster named One Two, Gerard Butler is suitably rough around all his edges. Possessed of the requisite good heart, not to mention excellent instincts when it comes to surviving the worst sorts of bloody abuse handed down by heavily tattooed Russian thugs, One Two is a charismatic, if not exactly surprising, center for RocknRolla. The title, as narrator Archy (Mark Strong) helpfully intones at the start, refers to the sort of rock star — literal and metaphorical — who lives fast and furiously, indulges in sex, drugs, fame and glamour, who “wants the fucking lot.”
The film delivers a rather abject exemplar in the punk-addict named Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell): he appears in abstract arty imagery under Archy’s voiceover. But this superficial, self-destructive celebrity version of the rocknrolla doesn’t detract from the implication that One Two is in fact the consummate rocknrolla. He’s cool not because he tries to be. He just is.
One Two is the most visibly heroic figure in Guy Ritchie’s latest version of the movie he keeps making. As always in Guyville, this figure is loyal to his mates (Handsome Bob [Tom Hardy] and Mumbles [Idris Elba]) and more or less opposed to an unctuous, navel-gazing crime boss. This one is named Lenny (Tom Wilkinson), and he’s particularly put out because his stepson is that young-and-dumb rocknrolla Johnny Quid, ever in crisis and so, in need of parental rescue. The crowded plot — which Archy explains, a lot — includes as well the man with whom Lenny is trying desperately to wrangle a real estate deal, a Russian named Uri (Karel Roden), who comes equipped with those tattooed thugs who batter One Two to a bloody pulp.
Violence is the primary form of communication among all the film’s macho posturers. Lenny manages his abuses by proxy, sending his number two, Archy, master of “the slap,” to persuade or dispatch all who might contradict him. Repeatedly, the damage is inflicted with comedic excess, not to mention Ritchie’s signature stylization: zappy pans, uproarious editing, and smashmouth fight-scene close-ups, all insisting on the noisiness and visceral pounding that movie gangsters love to inflict and take: when Archy instructs a squad of newbies on the art of the slap, he does so with fast-decreasing patience, as one fellow exhibits particular lunkheadedness. The Three Stooges-y build-up and jokey payoff align you with Archy’s relative wit (“If a slap doesn’t work, he instructs, “you cut him or you pay him, but keep the receipts, ’cause this isnn’t the mafia now”). Compared to his students, he’s a genius, though you might also note that he’s a longtime employee of the sleaziest man in London, Lenny (“There’s no school like the old school,” the old man insists, “and I’m the headmaster”).
One Two is not burdened with such affiliation. He and his friends take work where they can get it. Here, he’s assigned a series of mini-missions by Uri’s accountant, Stella (Thandie Newton), the movie’s requisite ethereal girl — perfectly designed, brilliant, and apparently choosy about her sex partners. Their mutual attraction is made visible during their series of meetings in posh locations — an art gallery where lighting and architecture highlight the exquisite length of her legs, a restaurant where his lack of finesse makes him seem conventionally “authentic,” even vaguely charming.
One Two’s worthiness is further highlighted in his downright decent behavior toward Handsome Bob, whose concern about an imminent five-year prison sentence finds expression in a confession: he’s got a crush on One Two. On hearing this news, One Two’s instant response — fear, anger, name-calling — ensures his hetero credentials (as does that ongoing flirtation with star-girl Stella). Yet loyalOne Two’s softening, his genuine loyalty and affection for Handsome Bob even if he is a “poof,” also make him seem a rather progressive sort, for a gangster. He takes to heart Mumbles’ judgment: “If I could be half the human that Bob is at the price of being a poof, I’d think about it. Not for too long, but I’d give a pause.”
The question of how much you know about your mates goes to the heart of gangster codes, in particular, trust. While the men are all bent on proving their hard bodies and spiritual toughness, they are even more invested in the reasons they go to such lengths. Those occupying the upper echelon — Lenny and Uri — are less able to trust the men around and below them, because their trustworthiness, by definition, is premised on money.
This is ever the dilemma of the rocknrolla, of course, that friendship is a matter of exchange. The film’s subplots offer shadings of this dilemma, in Johnny Quid’s management team (Jeremy Piven, slightly skuzzier here than as Ari Gold, and Ludacris, who mutters what seems the film’s truest line, “Rockers like that never die, they just wither and give me pain”), instructed to locate their star who’s disappeared in a fake death (rock stars make more money when they’re dead, yadda yadda) and then steals his stepfather’s precious possession, a painting lent to him by Uri (for whom it is an extra precious possession). Johnny evinces an abiding fury at Archy, who picks him up at boarding school in various flashbacks, illustrating the young man’s loneliness and growing meanness.
Even as it suggests that such meanness is a function of a sad childhood and ugly/absent parenting, RocknRolla repeatedly shakes up and spits out the possibilities of who might be redeemed and who absolutely cannot, punishing the latter and affiliating the former. More sad childhoods are sure to ensue.