Though it's already being hailed as a partial return to form after the disastrous reception accorded to Revolver and Swept Away, Rocknrolla seems unlikely to refloat Guy Ritchie's reputation back to the levels he enjoyed after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). It's a predictably slick, glossy, flashy thriller – with comic overtones – set in present-day London (touted as the imminent "financial and cultural capital of the world") which competently but unexcitingly recycles ideas and scenes long-familiar from a sub-genre that dates back to The Long Good Friday.
In a sprawling, nearly all-male ensemble, first among equals is Gerard Butler as as the enigmatically-monikered 'One Two' (footy reference? oblique nod to Edward Yang?), a genially bluff Scots hardnut who gets himself involved in messy underworld dealings with the capital's long-time Mr Big, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). This entanglement occurs just as the latter, who prides himself on his "old school" ways, is in danger of losing top-dog status to despised "immigrant" parvenus – represented by a ruthless Russky billionaire (Karel Roden). A 'lucky', priceless painting which changes hands numerous times – and whose contents are, coyly and predictably, never disclosed to the viewer – provides what passes for a McGuffin, while there's a subplot involving the identity of a police-informer which also fails to pull its narrative weight.
Not quite violent or hip enough for today's sensation-hungry younger audiences, Rocknrolla is likewise never sufficiently funny, sharp or distinctive – apart from a witty three-second sex-scene – to satisfy more mature viewers: characters are either gruntingly monosyllabic or spout incongruously florid lingo (meatheaded bouncer to annoying punter: "Jog on, boy, before I grind your bones to make my bread.") Proceedings only belatedly kick into gear with an amusingly extended, visually-inventive and likeably slam-bang chase involving a pair seemingly unkillable Russian hitmen – then too soon revert to their default so-so groove.
Butler is solidly charismatic, but neither he nor a strong supporting-cast – including the currently-ubiquitous Mark Strong, who provides copious exposition-heavy voiceover - are ever really given much to sink their teeth into. Toby Kebbell is sole exception: as the eponymous, hot-headed, wasp-waisted renegade rock-star Johnny Quid (of the 'Quidlickers'!), he works double-time to bring a bit of edgy, Bez-meets-Johnny-Boy volatility to the party.
Mr Quid turns out to be rather less "street" than his public image suggests: educated in the fanciest of public schools, he's perhaps intended as a self-deprecating self-portrait from Ritchie, whose combination of famously 'posh' background and fascination with East End seediness has made him a figure of fun in certain quarters. And can it be coincidental that Tom Hardy, who's quite touching as the sexually-ambivalent 'Handsome Bob', sometimes looks like a dead ringer for a writer-director whose own private life was subject to lurid speculation even before his marriage to a certain Bay City "rolla"? And there's plenty of time for such biographically-minded musings, as the picture lumbers along towards its 114-minute running-time.
The general aim seems to have been to infuse Ritchie's "classics" with the noirish menace of Eastern Promises and the Tarantino-ish kineticism of Smokin' Aces (whose Jeremy Piven pops up for a typically thankless role) – but the film-maker's aim remains somewhat wobbly. An indictment of corporate greed that's itself somewhat cynically ('quidlickingly?') pitched to appeal to the audiences who flocked to LS2SB and Snatch, Rocknrolla is too often content to swagger through the same old gangster-geezer cor-blimey-guvnor motions. "There's no school like the old school," as snarls Lenny at one stage – but Ritchie, while on this evidence not exactly meriting detention, is clearly nobody's prefect.
aka Rock N Rolla
114m (BBFC timing)
director : Guy Ritchie (Revolver, Swept Away, Snatch, etc)
editor : James Herbert (Dirty Sanchez – the Movie, Black Book, Revolver, etc)
seen 2.Sep.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)