Forget Madonna: Ritchie Returns With a Roar

December 5, 2008

“RocknRolla” is a h e l l u v a flick. It may not be a groundbreaking story, or even very different from others director Guy Ritchie has presented, but it’s a story well told.

From the first scene, in which Johnny Quid, a cracksmoking, barechested

Rock star and philosopher, explains the film’s title, you know you’re in for a pretty good ride. From there, quick, slick shots and a voiceover establish our premise. The fast-moving story centers on three related plots whose characters soon intersect. Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is a criminal mastermind who makes his living from London real estate scams. A billionaire Russian mobster is looking to snag the illegal permits he needs for a stadium. Add a doublecrossing accountant and a handful of local thugs with names like One Two and Mumbles, and you’ve got trouble.

One Two is played by Gerard Butler, best known as Spartan No. 1 in “300.” Here, he slides easily into a classic role: the sympathetic thug, the lovable underdog, the criminal you root for but who’s all too likely to mess things up. Overall, the pitchperfect casting and confident performances of the entire “RocknRolla” roster are Ritchie’s greatest asset in this film. None of the characters is dull, and all are played with gusto.

The best performance – and really, the whole movie – belongs to Tom Wilkinson.

His prolific film career has, in recent years, yielded many memorable roles as North Americans (“Batman Begins,” “In the Bedroom”), but here he returns to his roots as an English character actor. His hurried strut, ruthless plotting and subterranean pool of flesheating crawfish make him a villain to love. In fact, if some of the magic is gone from the latest Bond film, I think this is where it ended up.

“RocknRolla” has a few other delightful twists that make it stand out. When one of the local thugs reveals he’s gay – and in love with one of his partners in crime – the standard caper takes on an interesting new direction.

And a memorable, Tarantinoesque plotline surrounds the Russian’s missing “lucky painting,” which becomes a lifeordeath plot element but is always shot from the back, preventing the viewer from getting a glimpse.

I should add a major disclaimer: For some reason, I had never seen a Guy Ritchie film before, even his acclaimed “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” I hear “RocknRolla” is cut from the same cloth, and may seem like a rehash of his earlier films.

Even without knowing that, I did raise an eyebrow at the end of the last scene, when we’re promised that these characters will return in “The Real RocknRolla” – indeed, Ritchie has hinted he’s planning a trilogy. As fun as this movie may have been, it’s not clear whether this set of characters would yield two more enjoyable stories without getting stale.

Past and future aside, for a newcomer to Ritchie’s underworld, “RocknRolla” is clever, captivating and seamless. And it follows an often forgotten rule: Going to the movies should be fun.

 

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