Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/31/08 00:00:00

"Tough Guys Don't Make Much Sense"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

When Guy Ritchie first burst on the scene with his 1998 directorial debut “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” critics and viewers were sharply divided between those who enjoyed his high-octane take on the standard British crime thriller and those who felt that his reliance on convoluted plotting, weirdo humor and flashy visuals only underlined his inability to tell a coherent or compelling story on his own. His 2000 follow-up, “Snatch,” was essentially “Lock, Stock” writ larger and while those of us who liked the earlier film enjoyed it as well, there was the sense that Ritchie was already beginning to repeat himself. To his credit, Ritchie seemed to realize this as well and with his next two films, he decided to take a shot at expanding his creative horizons by abandoning the genre for newer pastures. Unfortunately, those two projects--a remake of the Lina Wertmuller joint “Swept Away” (designed as a vehicle for his soon-to-be-ex-wife Madonna) and the metaphysical head game “Revolver”--turned out to be absolute disasters that, despite their obvious ambitions, proved to be among the worst films of the decade. Coming off of two back-to-back bombs of that magnitude, it isn’t too surprising to discover that Ritchie has chosen to retreat to the familiar territory of “Lock, Stock” and ”Snatch “ with his latest effort, “Rocknrolla.” Unlike those previous films, however, it is clear that Ritchie’s heart just isn’t in it this time and while the end result is a better film than his last couple of efforts, it doesn’t offer viewers anything more than the sight of a talented director treading water with a story he seems to have little interest in telling and deploying an arch visual style not because the story requires it but because he feels that it is expected of him at this point.

If I recall the plot correctly (because this is one of those things where the rug is constantly being pulled out from under us), “Rocknrolla” starts as small-time thug One-Two (Gerard Butler) gets involved in a shady property scam with big-time gangster Lenny (Tom Wilkinson) that ends up with Lenny taking control of the property and One-Two inexplicably owing him money. Lenny makes a deal with sleazy Russian billionaire Uri (Karl Roden) who wants to use the property to build a new concert hall and who gives Lenny several million Euros in order to grease the wheels to make it happen and loans him a valuable lucky painting to hold onto until the deal goes through. What would seem to be a dream deal for Lenny quickly turns nightmarish when Uri’s sly and sexy accountant (Thandie Newton) hires One-Two and his gang to steal the bribe money from the couriers taking it to the commission and to make matters worse, the lucky painting goes missing as well, forcing Lenny to search high and low for both before Uri can find out what is going on. While all this is going on, we also follow the misadventures of Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbel), a rock star so dissolute that he is already on his third death rumor of the year, and his managers (Jeremy Piven and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) who are desperate to prove to the public that he is alive and kicking--inevitably, these characters will wind find their fates entwined with One-Two, Lenny and the others in a climax that will inspire audience responses covering the gamut from “Huh?” to “Meh!”

As I said earlier, “Rocknrolla” is a deliberate attempt on Ritchie’s part to return to the glory days of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” but this time around, the formula just doesn’t work. He tries to utilize the same old tricks--weird visuals, quirky characters and a fractured narrative style--but they just feel old hat here. In fact, the opening half of the film may be the dullest sustained stretch of filmmaking of Ritchie’s entire career. Say what you will about “Swept Away” and “Revolver”--at least they were attempts to do something new and Ritchie managed to bring some energy to the proceedings. Here, he is clearly just going through the motions to such a draggy degree that by the time he has finished setting up all the various characters, their connections to each other and the ways in which they hope to double-cross each other, there will be very few in the audience who will still be awake and alert enough to figure out what the hell is going on. (This is one of those movies that keeps losing the narrative thread to such a degree that you may be convinced every few minutes that you drifted off to sleep for a few minutes and somehow missed some key information.) The second half is a little bit better but even then, the numerous twists, turns and reversals of fortune turn out to become anything other than surprising because we have seen them all dozens of times before. In fact, the only truly audacious thing about this film is that it ends with an announcement that a sequel is supposedly on the way, a bit of news that is likely to enrage rather than enrapture viewers since this alleged follow-up sounds somewhat more interesting than the movie that they just saw.

Compared to the messes of “Swept Away” and “Revolver,” “Rocknrolla” is noisy and flamboyant enough to potentially convince some viewers that it is a return to form for Ritchie. However, when you consider the amount of time, energy and talent that was expended on this film, the fact that the end result feels like something that Ritchie could have done in his sleep (and may well have, for all I know) marks it as a real disappointment. The guy does have a genuine gift behind the camera but, like fellow former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan, it seems as if he has hit the point where he needs to let somebody else write the screenplays for him so that he can have a more solidly constructed story in his hands before he steps behind the cameras in order to get him out of his creative rut. If that were to happen (and it seems to be happening with his upcoming film, a new take on Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. in the lead), it might allow him to show us the promise as a filmmaker that he had once but now seems to have misplaced like it was a lucky painting or something.

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