“RocknRolla” is supposed to be writer/director Guy Ritchie’s return to form. What that means is that his first two movies “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” were so similar in style and plotting that they defined him as a filmmaker. After two ill-received departures (“Swept Away” and “Revolver”), Ritchie goes back to the well with his newest British tough-guy farce.
“RocknRolla” has all the hallmarks of Ritchie’s first two films. An ensemble cast of gangsters, lowlifes, thugs, and junkies are all after a “macguffin” (this time: a painting we never actually the face of). He throws a million different motivations from a million different quickly defined conmen together, mixes them up in a stew, and spits them back out like so much backwash. The plotlines intertwine in the most unlikeliest of ways, and for a brief moment, it seems like the rest of the slog might have been worth it. It’s not.
Hint number one that your movie doesn’t make any sense: A narrator is constantly explaining everything. Tom Wilkinson is a nasty crime boss whose stepson (Tony Kebbell) is a drug-addicted rock star pretending to be dead (but for some reason still goes out to clubs); while lunkheaded crook Gerard Butler (King Leonidas in “300) and a crew called the The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah reference?) pull off a series of robberies for a cool-as-ice upper-class hottie in a slinky dress (Thandie Newton) whose motives are suspect. Come to think of it, everybody’s motives are suspect—and after a late-term plot revelation, it’s not even worth it to try to sort it all out because it’s impossible to care anymore.
Intricate plots are fine as long as you follow the characters through all the muck and actually care about what happens to them. Either that, or the window dressing is so impressive that it doesn’t matter. (Case in point: “The Big Sleep,” starring Bogart and Bacall.) “RocknRolla” has neither, although it does contain exactly two very memorable scenes.
A funny chase involving Butler’s hapless gang features two Russian hitmen who take a licking (or four or five) and (ridiculously) keep on ticking. Besides being well-paced, there are also some nifty point-of-view camera tricks that enhance the characters’ desperation. There is also a sex scene of jump cuts that lasts about 10 seconds and gives the viewer a pretty accurate idea of the amount of emotion involved in that small time frame.
But the rest of “RocknRolla” is one identical scene after another where one guy tries to out badass the other guy. Some of them, it turns out, are bluffing—they aren’t so badass after all—but most of the time, Ritchie’s “characters” act like only movie-cool gangsters act. You know the kind: They crack wise down the barrel of a gun and spend all of their time either one-upping someone or getting one-upped. It’s tiring after a while to watch these macho men perform the same schtick over and over again.
Maybe if the dialogue were more clever (the onslaught of gay jokes between one group gets old fast and then keeps coming back), it would be easier to swallow this familiar Ritchie formula. Instead it goes down like sour milk. Some of the actors, particularly the American ones, are not up to the task. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is completely unconvincing in a small role, and Jeremy Piven’s comedic talents are completely wasted in a thankless part. (Piven may be an Emmy winner for playing a ball-out agent on HBO’s ‘Entourage,’ but he ought to fire his agent forgetting him another small role in another hipster crime ensemble—although “RocknRolla” is way less annoying than “Smokin’ Aces”).
In the end, “RocknRolla” suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Ritchie may be going back to a style of film that he knows well, but much of the movie seems like moldy leftovers from “Snatch.” I can only assume that the sequel—promised during the closing credits of “RocknRolla”—will smell even less fresh than this one.