Sunday, March 18, 2012
When, last year, I reviewed Guy Ritchie’s earlier crime caper ‘Snatch’, I drew this unlikely comparision: “the closest I can come to describing the plotting and overall aesthetic is like a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Except with guns. And swearing. Your average Wodehouse novel consists of a foppish toff, a meddling aunt, a potential fiancée, a big social event and the always lurking potential for cringing embarrassment at same. The machinations of a handful of characters and a couple of overlapping incidents are shuffled with the blink-and-miss-it legerdemain of a game of find the lady. Sit down and try to unpick the narrative after you’ve set the novel aside and you’ll be engaging in an exercise in pointlessness.”
You can’t quite say the same of ‘RocknRolla’, since the tone isn’t as rambunctious nor the laughs as frequent. And at nearly half an hour longer than ‘Snatch’, the narrative has a little more room to breathe. This is a generally a good thing, as breathlessly overcomplicated plotting can often ruin a movie; however, Ritchie does breathlessly overcomplicated plotting better than anyone and languorous scenes in his movies are as jarring as a shoot-out in a Tarkovsky flick.
‘RocknRolla’ kicks off with a demonstration of how mob boss Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) – London is, apparently, “his town” – runs a real-estate racket; it’s four-and-a-half minutes of dizzying back and forth in which Lenny gets his mitts on a nice bit of property, a city councilor (Jimi Mistry) has his strings pulled till he doesn’t know which tune he’s dancing to let alone who’s calling it, and low-rent crims One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) find themselves royally stiffed and owing Lenny two big ones.
One Two and Mumbles are part of a group of small-timers who style themselves, with Peckinpahesque delusions of grandeur, as “the Wild Bunch”. Their number includes Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), who’s looking at a five stretch and wants a little favour from One Two before he goes down (and for those of you who’ve seen the film, yes that pun was intentional). The Wild Bunch pull occasional heists from information provided by Stella the Accountant (Thandie Newton).
Stella is currently working for Russian oligarch Uri Omovich (Karel Roden). Uri wants to build a stadium in London and is employing Lenny to grease the wheels of bureaucracy. Uri lends Lenny a painting in a gesture of largesse (in the film’s subtlest joke, Ritchie only ever shows the frame, not the painting), but finds his luck changes almost immediately as he’s ripped off, over two transactions, to the tune of £14million. Blaming ill-luck on the absence of the painting, he demands it back from Lenny. One little problem: Lenny’s had the painting stolen from him by his coked-up, wayward and dangerous unpredictable stepson, Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), frontman of a punk band called the Quid Lickers. The same Johnny Quid who’s just been reported drowned.
The usual mélange of double- and triple-crosses ensues as Lenny – suspecting, correctly, that Johnny is alive and milking the publicity for renewed album sales – tasks his enforcer Archie (Mark Strong) to find him and retrieve the painting, Uri steps up security in the form of two Chechnyan hardnuts who make the T-1000 look like Quentin Crisp, One Two and Mumbles have a bruising encounter with same, Handsome Bob coerces information regarding the informer who got him the five-stretch out of Stella’s gay marriage-of-convenience lawyer husband Bertie (David Bark-Jones), and Stella herself tries to extricate herself from Uri’s romantic overtures.
Out of these Altman-like criss-crossings come some inspired scenes. In particular: Archie’s masterclass on how to deliver a proper slap; One Two and Mumbles struggling to find reverse gear in a getaway car; a deliberately naff dance routine; and a heist sequence that starts out in ultra-proficient ‘Heat’-style and swiftly degenerates into a fracas in a sporting goods store. But it’s never quite as dementedly entertaining as ‘Snatch’. Nor is it ever fully clear who our protagonist is: Butler is first-billed, but One Two fades into the background several times in the second half, during which time Archie begins to play an increasingly important part in things. However both are given short shrift for the ascendancy of a pivotal – but, in terms of screen-time, almost peripheral – character.
The cast deliver in spades, right down to one- or two-scene supporting turns from Gemma Arterton as the dolled-up secretary at Johnny’s record label, Chris Bridges (a.k.a. Ludacris) as Johnny’s long-suffering manager, and Nonso Anozie as ticket tout and costume-drama fan Tank (Archie’s speculation as to the derivation of his name gives ‘RocknRolla’ its most memorable moment of political incorrectness). David Higgs’s slightly washed-out cinematography strikes a good balance between the flashy lifestyles of Uri and Lenny, and the grubby milieu of One Two and his ilk, between the well-lit artifice of the art gallery Stella patronises and the shadowy interior of the abandoned warehouse where Lenny conducts interrogations.
Best of all though, is Ritchie’s unrestrained love of film-making; every frame is shot through with a sort of wideboy joie de vivre. The end credits promise, in cheeky James Bond style, that the main players will return in ‘The Real RocknRolla’. Hope so.