I hate to think that RocknRolla is Guy Ritchie's way of telling fans that he's a two-trick pony. With their quirky characters and visual trickery, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels easily rank amongst the finest modern crime pictures. But you wouldn't know it from the looks of RocknRolla, which knows the words that go along with the gangster genre but lacks the all-important music. It's a film that feels like it's aping Ritchie's style rather than embracing it, a confounding conundrum of a caper that gives up trying to make sense around the same time viewers stop caring.
To attempt to synopsize RocknRolla in one measly paragraph is a Herculean feat, but I shall do my best. The catalyst for all the action taking place is Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), an old-school London gangster who specializes in crooked land deals. After a piece of property in the city's increasingly hot market comes his way, Lenny orchestrates his usual symphony of dirty dealings. But slinky accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) throws a monkey wrench in his business with a shady Russian (Karel Roden) after hiring two good-natured thugs (Gerard Butler and Idris Elba) to make off with the latter's cash. Then there's the matter of the Russian's "lucky" painting, given to Lenny as security but swiftly stolen by Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a junkie rocker who has no intentions of letting it go.
There's a lot more to RocknRolla's labyrinthine story, but there's only so much bandwidth in the world to spare. Suffice it to say, Ritchie makes sure the screen is occupied at all times — the man's trouble lies in getting audiences to care. The bottom line is that there's no rhyme or reason to RocknRolla; there's only the illusion of stuff happening and the absence of something to connect it all together. The story is a concoction of various hard-boiled gangster elements that have been blended only halfway through. You can see what Ritchie was trying to get at, but you're still left with a bitter-tasting cocktail. Focus is Ritchie's biggest problem here, as he never sticks around one subplot long enough for viewers to get their bearings. We're always left in a state of wondering who's stealing from who and why, and not in a good way. The dearth of a point is downright aggravating, especially when the film goes about its business as if everything makes perfect sense. This wouldn't hurt so much had RocknRolla come equipped with a more carefree attitude, but it shows itself scantly throughout the production.
This being a Guy Ritchie feature, you'd think that there would be some style to fall back on and distract viewers from the story's bewildering nature. Unfortunately, style is a rare commodity to come by in RocknRolla. Aside from the engaging opening credits and a robbery sequence that goes hilariously awry, Ritchie plays things with a straight face. The entire film is bathed in a brown, almost washed-out color scheme, which would fit the film perfectly if it ever got around to utilizing it. Instead, all the characters do is talk circles around each other as if they were part of a high school production of The Sting. The few moments that actually engage one's attention are usually when something's resolved, which also doesn't happen often. It's a shame, since the actors do their darndest to make RocknRolla seem more fun to have made than to watch. Butler fares well as the closest thing to a hero here, Wilkinson lives it up as a perpetually grizzled mobster, and Newton fills the femme fatale role just fine. I also rather liked Body of Lies actor Mark Strong's turn as Archie, Lenny's right hand man, our narrator, and the only character who has the slightest idea of what's going on.
Earlier this year, I blasted another recent Ritchie release, Revolver, for copping a pretentious attitude and presenting a story impossible to understand. RocknRolla is free from that film's uppity mindset, but it has just as impenetrable a premise. It's only so often that you can set a flawed story aside and just enjoy a flick for what it is. But in terms of alternatives to offer, RocknRolla finds itself as barren as Wal-Mart on Black Friday.Powered by Sidelines