The 2008 comedy-crime thriller buddy-movie "RocknRolla" comes to us from English writer-producer-director Guy Ritchie, who previously gave us the popular "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." However, "RocknRolla" got a relatively limited release in the U.S. and Great Britain, pretty much ensuring that only a few people saw it or even heard about it. Why?
It could be that Warner Bros. didn't feel the movie was very good, or it could be that for whatever reason they felt it wouldn't attract much of an audience. My own feeling is that nobody was quite sure about the title. The first time I saw the name, I thought it was a gangsta-rap flick about tough, inner-city blacks. Nope. Like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," it's actually a Tarantino-type, ironically humorous mobster picture set in the milieu of London's criminal underground, with double dealing and plot twists galore. If you like the genre, "RocknRolla" works pretty well; it's fast paced, violent, funny, and fun. Maybe the DVD release will give it a new lease on life.
As a clone of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," which had a fairly complicated plot, "RocknRolla" follows suit with a story that is not easy to follow. Its numerous characters and narrative convolutions are bad enough, but a lot of American viewers might have to turn the English captions on to understand the British dialects. London gangsters may be English but they talk practically in a foreign language.
Anyway, things start with mostly black-and-white cartoon graphics accompanying the opening titles. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie; we know it's going to be a cartoonlike adventure, with all the cartoon violence and exaggeration we've come to expect from a graphic novel.
Next we get the setup, and a lot of viewers may find it so perplexing from the outset, it will leave them in the dust early. I know I had to back up several times in the first few minutes to review who all the characters were and what they were up to.
In the first fifteen minutes or so, here's what happens: Ritchie introduces us to a pair of small-time hoods, One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), buddies who have hit upon a get-rich-quick scheme by buying a dilapidated old building, getting the London planning commission to rezone it, and then selling it at a huge profit. All they need is the seed money, about two million, and they get it from London's biggest crook, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Lenny is an old-line mobster who owns all the city councilors, judges, and policemen and can get anything he wants done. When one of the city councilors takes the hoods' money and then cannot come through on the rezoning, their deal falls apart, and Lenny holds One Two and Mumbles accountable for the two million they now owe him. However, unbeknownst to One Two or Mumbles, Lenny simply calls the city councilor and, because he can blackmail anyone in town, he tells the fellow he "must" rezone the building or else. It gets done. But Lenny doesn't tell One Two or Mumbles about this; instead, he tells them he still wants his money back. He wants One Two and Mumbles and everyone else to fear him, you see. He teaches up-and-coming young hoods a lesson so they won't rise up against him. He keeps people in their place. It's how he has always maintained power. "There's no school like the old school," says Lenny, "and I'm the f.... Headmaster."
Now enter a Russian billionaire, Uri (Karel Roden), who is trying to horn in on Lenny's power base. He's buying up enormous tracts of land in London and building everywhere, and he's becoming enormously influential. At the moment he needs Lenny's help in securing a planning commission permit for a new building, a permit for which he'd have to wait years without Lenny's connections. Lenny understands this and tells Uri he'll get the permit for him--for seven million euros. Next, Uri decides he doesn't want to take the seven million out of his bank account; instead, he wants to hide the withdrawal so nobody can later accuse him of bribing city officials. So he asks his shady account, Stella Baxter (Thandie Newton), to secure the money through "creative" channels.
Stella, though, finds herself bored, and just for kicks, when she does arrange for the money, she also hires two old friends, coincidentally One Two and Mumbles, to steal it and split it with her. Since One Two and Mumbles owe two million to Lenny, they jump at the chance, not realizing they're stealing money that is really going to Lenny. Are you following me, camera guy?
But Lenny's slick right-hand man, Miles Archy (Mark Strong), whose name reminds us of Sam Spade's old partner, Miles Archer, doesn't trust the Russian, and warns Lenny against doing business with him. Lenny won't listen. Lenny thinks he's bigger than anybody, and he resents these "outsiders" coming into his town and throwing their money around.
That's not all. As a gift of good faith, the Russian loans Lenny a prized, lucky, and very valuable painting, which somebody subsequently steals from Lenny's private office. Now, the Russian has lost his money and lost his painting. He's annoyed, to say the least. And this is just the setup in the movie's first few minutes. Things get really tangled from there!
Ritchie says on the commentary track that he was trying to show how London has changed in the past ten or fifteen years, how outside influences are altering the city forever, and the old ways are disappearing. Little does an old-time gangster like Lenny know that it isn't just the Russian Uri that he's up against; it's the whole shifting culture, and the world is about to pass him by.
I have to admit that despite the story's overly complex plot line, there are some funny situations and some good acting that more than keep one occupied. At the center of things is Gerard Butler, who is a fine actor; yet once again you wouldn't know it because the poor guy can't get recognized to save his soul. He was wearing so much makeup that nobody could tell who he was in "The Phantom of the Opera" and "300," and hardly anybody got to see him in "Beowulf & Grendel," "Dear Frankie," "Butterfly on a Wheel," and this film. He can't seem to win. (And along with "300," this one's another Butler film with a homoerotic subtext.) Tom Wilkinson is always good, too, whether he's playing a native Englishman or an American, and here his frustrated, tough-as-nails crime boss is a delight.
Now, add in rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), who may or may not be dead; a massively built mobster named "Tank" (Nonso Anozie), who says his moniker derives from his being a "think tank"; a pair of music promoters, Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Chris Bridges, aka Ludicris), as clueless as they can be; One Two's good friend, Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), a lady-killer with a secret everyone but One Two knows; and a whole crew of underworld types to which One Two, Mumbles, and Handsome Bob belong, a crew known collectively as "The Wild Bunch."
As far as humor goes, well, it's the goofiness that counts as much as the characters and the plot twists, with a great scene about how a real gangster should slap a guy properly, and an extended sequence about two relentless Russian thugs, plus some grisly but amusing business involving crayfish.
And what exactly is a "rocknrolla," anyhow? Is he a guy who wants women and money and power? Not just. Mainly, he's a guy "who wants the f.... lot." In spite of the film being derivative of Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in appearance and subject matter (with a little of "The Departed" thrown in), "RocknRolla" is still a lot of fun. At least, what you can understand of it.
The WB video engineers present "RocknRolla" in anamorphic widescreen, which reproduces the digitally shot film's original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 probably as well as standard definition can do. Understand, though, that Ritchie uses a muted, color-drained palette, favoring light browns and greys, about as close as he can come to doing the whole thing in black-and-white graphic-novel style, as his opening titles suggested. The digital image is also exceptionally soft, the delineation, like the hues, mainly dull and subdued. While the screen is relatively clean, it also suggests a small degree of gritty roughness that goes beyond mere film grain.
Warners offer the sound in Dolby Digital 5.1, which provides excellent dynamics and widespread surround for its rock background music and its impressive car crash. All the same, it can often be as unrelenting as those two Russian thugs I mentioned earlier in sounding noisy and loud and even a bit sharp and edgy.
Nothing wrong with the extras; nothing extraordinary about them, either. Of course, there's the mandatory audio commentary, this one by Ritchie and co-star Mark Strong, who get so caught up in enjoying the picture themselves, they sometimes forget to comment on it. Then there is an eight-minute featurette, "Guy's Town," on the contemporary London setting, and a deleted scene, "Would You Put the Cigarette Out?"
In addition, the disc contains twenty-eight scene selections; several trailers at start-up; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Finally, the set includes a bonus digital copy disc of the film, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices, plus a slipcover for the keep case.
Basically, "RocknRolla" is Guy Ritchie trying to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie. He's trying to top "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" with something following the same violent, twisty, comic-ironic gangster formula, and, no, he doesn't surpass himself. Nonetheless, "RocknRolla" provides a good deal of entertainment on its own, and it probably works best if you forget the previous Ritchie film. Just enjoy it for what it is and don't worry that it's imitative.
Speaking of which, "RocknRolla" ends with a postscript that reads "Johnny, Archy, and the Wild Bunch will be back in the real RocknRolla." On the commentary track, Ritchie even says that he likes the next script better than the first one. We'll see. I just hope he doesn't stick with the same color scheme; the monotone is rather a bore.