It’s easy to imagine the critical cynicism that’s likely to ensnare Guy Ritchie’s return to the cockney crime caper. After the success of Lock, Stock and Snatch, he became the latest tall poppy to be motor-mowered by the press pack when Swept Away sank and Revolver fired blanks. So, he made a couple of duffers and married a pop star: hang the cocky bastard from the red tops!
Truth is, Ritchie’s return to gangland, geezerism and guns guns guns is a Very Good Thing. He’s one of Britain’s most exciting filmmakers and as one of the few not to have high-tailed it to America at the first hint of Hollywood interest, he deserves due credit. RocknRolla is a Brit thriller unlike most anything made here any more; it’s vibrant, exciting cinema – not bloody television with posher set catering. And – perhaps fuelled by, yes, relief – it’s made with an almost tangible sense of confidence, of joy… The director is back in a familiar playground and, as underworld boss
Len (Tom Wilkinson) tells his right-hand man Archie (Mark Strong), “There’s no school like the old school and I’m the fucking headmaster…” Len is the fulcrum of a labyrinthine plot that moves “like shit through a goose” and we’re not going to bother untangling here. Suffice to say it involves property, a painting and enough pungent, credible, charismatic characters to suggest the promised two follow-ups will never want for engaging anti-heroes. There are off-screen stories for everyone: from the brilliantly played “Wild Bunch” of One Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) to the blink’n’miss bit-parters who make even minor exchanges memorable.
It’s cruel to single anyone out, but David Leon and Bronson Webb make a distinct impression as a kind of junkie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then there’s the rock’n’rolla of the title, a crack-addled musician who’s been compared to Pete Doherty – except Toby Kebbell has more charisma in the saliva on the tip of one of his chain-smoked cigarettes than Doherty has in his whole sorry carcass.
It’s a superb performance from a young actor unafraid to appear unpleasant and unpalatable, tapping a feral intensity but somehow clawing back the character from complete damnation.
Along with the performances, pounding soundtrack (listen for the great use of Lou Reed’s ‘The Gun’) and peppy dialogue, come Ritchie’s gloriously ostentatious visuals (the slo/fast-mo gallery peek at Thandie Newton is terrific), a wry comment on how new money is taking over London and a sly wit, best displayed in a wham-bam sex scene montage. As Archie says, “A real rock’n’rolla wants the fucking lot.”
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