Guy Ritchie was limited to knowledge of a couple cult classic British crime stories, his marriage to Madonna and subsequent disastrous movie starring Mrs. Ritchie. I liked Sherlock Holmes but didn't love it, and looking at his short list of movies none of them really jumped out at me, especially 2008's RocknRolla. I remember seeing the trailer and thinking it looked like an annoyingly ultra-stylish story that knows it's cool and is going to take every opportunity it gets to show you how cool it is. But then I really looked at the cast, and thought I had to at least give it a try. I'm glad I did.
Ritchie has taken all sorts of abuse over the years for everything from his directing style -- as a Tarantino rip-off -- to his not-so private life with Madonna. And even in a period piece about one of literature's most famous characters, Ritchie was able to make it an ultra-stylish period piece. Not having seen Snatch or Lock, Stock... but knowing their reputation, it seems Ritchie is most at home in the London underworld where heavy accents and dialects dominate and everyone and anyone will turn on you for a buck. RocknRolla is at times convoluted, at times overly concerned in its style, but in the end a very enjoyable, very entertaining British crime caper.
When a business deal goes south, two members of a British gang called the Wild Bunch, One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), find themselves in needs of some quick cash, turning to an icy accountant (Thandie Newton) for some inside information. The man they owe, criminal kingpin Lenny Nelson (Tom Wilkinson), doesn't necessarily need the money, but principle is principle. Lenny, with right hand man Archy (Mark Strong), is caught up in a real estate deal with a Russian businessman (Karel Roden), who loans Lenny a famous, lucky painting of his until the deal can be completed. The painting wastes no time disappearing, and Lenny is up the creek, even more so when he finds out his stepson, drugged out rocker Johnny Quill (Toby Kebbell), is the thief. So it goes as all these crooks work to save their own backsides, a vicious cycle as One Two and Mumbles end up stealing the money that Lenny is due from the Russian, the painting playing a key role, and in the end everyone is going to run into each other.
Screwy enough for you? There were times as all these various storylines cross and re-cross that I wondered if I was watching a Seinfeld episode. But like the best Seinfeld episodes, Ritchie fixes everything in the end as all these characters, storylines and predicaments come together, everything tied up nicely with a bow. Confusing at times, surely, but never to the point where you feel lost. Because there is so much going on, you're not always sure quite where everything is going, but it's fun to go along for the ride. At a certain point, you just go along and enjoy some really cool characters interact in some very stylish ways. The London criminal underworld never looked so good.
The characters I included above covers about half the actual cast. Jeremy Piven and rapper Ludacris have two small parts as Johnny Quill's former manager roped into helping Lenny get his painting back. Tom Hardy plays Handsome Bob, a member of the Wild Bunch and friend of One Two and Mumbles. There's other characters that drift in and out, but those are the biggies. Two main storylines dominate all the action, Wilkinson and Strong as the kingpin and his tough as nails assistant trying to track down a stolen painting (the ridiculousness of the premise somehow works perfectly) while Butler, Elba and Hardy keep going after piles of money just waiting to be stolen.
Going away, my favorite parts of RocknRolla was the Wild Bunch. They have a great dynamic among all the members of a gang that isn't low-level crooks but isn't top-shelf thieves either. They're somewhere in between, knowing their place in the underworld. Butler has struggled finding good roles since the success of 300, but this is a very funny gem for him. Elba is equally perfect in an underused part as Mumbles, and Hardy (another great supporting part along with this summer's Inception) has a great twist to his character that produces some very funny results. The high point for the Wild Bunch is a robbery gone bad when two Chechnyan thugs do everything they can to protect the cash they're guarding. A running, chaotic chase scene with some great dark humor, knock down violence runs for almost 10 minutes and is the runaway favorite for the best scene in the movie. Watch a portion of it HERE. The end of course says the Wild Bunch will be back, and I'm looking forward to it.
As strong as the cast was, I was skeptical going into this movie and ended up really liking it. Almost every member of the cast is given their own chance to shine and none disappoint. Wilkinson is his smarmy, intimidating best, Strong's narration is dripping with subtle humor, Newton is a sexy femme fatale that film noir would be jealous of, Butler, Elba and Hardy have a chemistry that speaks to longtime friends, and in the big picture, the stylish elements never go overboard. Ritchie has a real winner here. If I can offer any advice, watch the trailer below, but don't hold it against the movie. Don't do what I did, and hold it against the movie.
RocknRolla <---trailer (2008): ***/****