What the hell happened to Guy Ritchie? Sure, it's easy to point a finger at Madonna (and the cynical side of me thinks that all the press lately surrounding their miserable marriage is just publicity for Guy's new movie), but it's truly shocking how drastically this once uber-promising writer/director has fallen. After Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie was on top of the hip movie world. He was the British Quentin Tarantino, a guy who had his finger on the pulse of dark characters and clever dialogue. And then it went to hell. Swept Away was an absolute mess, but most of us assumed that it was just a case of a filmmaker on too long a honeymoon and that Guy would bounce back, but Revolver was even worse. A stunning example of cinematic narcissism and stupidity, Revolver forever changed my opinion of Ritchie, but I still held out hope that his follow-up, RockNRolla, his first straight-up gangster movie since Snatch, would actually be the return to form that early reviews had touted it to be. In one sense - the fact that, like most movies released, it's better than Swept Away or Revolver - RockNRolla is a return to form, but it's still a disappointment. The writer in love with his own cluttered plot, the writer who actually thought Revolver was releasable, is still there even if the visual energy of his first two films is back in play. Ritchie the director may have returned to form, but Ritchie the writer is still an amorphous mess.
Now is about the time when a critic usually recaps the plot of a movie. I'm not convinced that even Ritchie himself could adequately recap RockNRolla, so please be patient. The first 30 minutes of the movie, narrated by the great Mark Strong's character Archie, are a labyrinthine mess of characters and plots that someone should have trimmed at least by half. Archie is the old friend and assistant of Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a notorious London mobster who runs real estate scams through his connections in the city. One such scam catches the obnoxiously-named One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), a pair of local criminals, who happen to occasionally do work for Lenny's sexy, thrill-seeking accountant (Thandie Newton). The accountant sets up a deal where One Two and Mumbles will heist a payment that Lenny is making to a dangerous Russian mobster named Uri (Karl Roden). So, the criminals steal from the people they owe to pay them back, but the basic lesson of the movie is never f*** with the Russians.
And, believe it or not, the whole film actually revolves around a lucky painting (that we never see, a la the briefcase in Pulp Fiction) that Uri loans to Lenny and is then stolen by the mobster's rock-and-roller (say that fast and with a British accent and you'll get the title) son Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). The rocker happens to be a junkie who fakes his own death and the mobs - British and Russian - who need their painting back go to two people who have worked with him in the past, Mickey (Jeremy Piven) and Roman (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) to find the borderline maniac. Make sense? Of course not. And characters with names like Fred the Head, Handsome Bob, Tank, and Cookie don't help.
The script for RockNRolla is an unqualified disaster. The first half-hour is nearly unbearable in its consistent introduction of character on top of subplot on top of character with so little rhyme or reason that you’ll need to take notes to keep up. When the movie finally settles into its groove and Ritchie the director can choreograph some action sequences and start killing off his overcrowded cast of characters, he actually does find some of the music-driven energy that was the hallmark of his first two hits. There are a couple of sequences involving crazy Russian killers that are enjoyable in their nihilistic glee. But for everything that feels like "old Ritchie" in RockNRolla, there's at least one scene that comes straight out of the disastrous work that nearly torpedoed his career for good. The fact is that if RockNRolla had been Ritchie's third movie, the disappointment might not have been as pronounced. It would have felt like the inevitable slight letdown that every filmmaker needs to get out of their system. But now it's too many years down the road and whatever works about RockNRolla may be too little, too late.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: October 31st, 2008
Starring: Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Gerard Butler, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Toby Kebbell, Matt King, Thandie Newton, Jeremy Piven, Karl Roden, Mark Strong, and Tom Wilkinson
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Guy Ritchie