Despite his fresh success with the back to back Sherlock Holmes films, as recently as four years Ago Guy Ritchie was a director shunned by both audiences, and Critics. Riding high on the Success of his breakout films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, he alienated his new found fan base with a pointless remake of Swept Away, and the self-indulgent Revolver. Opening to largely negative reviews and disappointing box office, the consecutive flops forced a rethink.
For his next feature Ritchie made a return to his roots, (well, partially at least) with 2008’s RockNRolla. Shot entirety in London, with an impressive cast and reasonable budget at its disposal it was marketed as a return to the ‘Cops and Cockney’s’ of Ritchie’s earlier work-just a bit slicker.
Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly a triumphant return, whilst the larger budget and Ritchie’s increased experience certainly work in the film’s favour, its sluggish pace, immediate sense of familiarity, and crucially, a dull story prove near fatal issues. There are certainly things to like about the film-namely the cast and Direction, but neither of these cover up RockNRolla’s main problem – for a ‘guns and geezer’s’ film it simply isn’t that entertaining. Admittedly fans of the Gangster Genre probably won’t care about character motivation or shot construction, but RockNRolla largely fails to work as an enjoyable Gangster flick or even on a simple entertainment level, and the issues listed only serve to highlight this.
An Opening Monologue appropriately introduces the film and its tone: ‘…We all like a bit of the good life. Because a real RockNRolla wants the f****** lot…’ (Ritchie’s approval of swear words hadn’t changed at least)
Archibald (The in-everything Mark Strong) is the right hand man to bad tempered London Gangster Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) a man ‘with the keys to this booming city’…or so he likes to think, but times are changing in the capital. With a recent property boom, a wayward drug addled stepson, and a muddled script to bear in mind, Cole finds his work cut out to stay in the game, as foreign competitors start to move in on his turf.
Meanwhile the oddly named One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), leaders of a small time crew (‘The Wild Bunch’), find themselves caught in the middle. Enticing opportunities come their way, just as a stolen painting, seemingly indestructible Russian Heavies and innovatively put to use crayfish appear in the neighbourhood…
As this brief synopsis shows it’s a linear but quite bloated storyline, grimmer and a little more ‘grown up’ than Ritchie’s early features, it certainly seems to have enough ingredients to come out entertaining on the screen, unfortunately it is anything but. Feeling and unfolding very formulaically, it somehow manages to be predictable, boring and confusing all at once. Serving as Both Writer and Director Ritchie only really succeeds in his latter capacity…the script can honestly be described as terrible.
At no point are there any big surprises, almost all of the characters could be cut and pasted from any other gangster film, whilst the resolution is obvious a third of the way into the film, clichés may arguably be expected, even so it’s annoying how lazy the film feels. Many Boxes are ticked, but it’s often the wrong ones, or done half-heartedly. What is surprising is how long it takes to get to the ending.
Running just under Two Hours RockNRolla was shorter than many of its competitors, yet doesn’t feel it. The simple storyline is stretched out for little discernible reason, things such as character motivation and structure often take a backseat in Gangster films due to pacing reasons or to make room for set pieces, but neither seemed to be a concern for the producers. The film unfolds at a slow pace, the lulls in the simple story are filled with little of any meaning, and the sporadic set pieces are quickly over with and mostly concentrated towards the films end.
Irrelevant diversions and random secondary characters make regular appearances, (taking away screen time from more important characters) and increasingly confuse or annoy as the film progresses, it is at least half an hour before the plot really gets going and there is a very limited amount of ‘action’, not only is it slow paced and confusing…it can honestly be described as boring.
Repetitive conversations and an attempt to address the morals of the ‘Gangster’ lifestyle only come across as annoying; there is little of the glamour or Gore some viewers may have expected from the genre, and it’s well over halfway into the film before there are any significant set pieces.
The witty dialogue that populated Ritchie’s first two features is noticeably (and unfortunately) mostly absent, most of the humour comes visually- a protracted foot chase with an overweight Heavy and a badly thought out carjacking add welcome laughs, an abundance of inventive swearing features in the film (well matched by the comic timing of many of the cast), but there’s only so many times you can hear the word ‘F***’ before it becomes, well, F****** annoying.
Characters tend to be introduced as lately and conveniently as possible, there is quite a large cast of characters, but few serve much purpose in the film, which is a shame, as the cast is one of the films few strengths.
Tom Wilkinson and Mark Strong add gravitas to quite predictable roles and play off each other well (the two are rarely seen on screen separately), whilst Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy and Idris Elba have fun as the leaders of ‘The Wild Bunch’, none of the main cast bring the expected baggage with their names (The film was released before their ascension to the A List and the blockbuster school of filmmaking), but the performances are near uniformly excellent. Only Thandie Newton struggles to make an impression, handed a small, thankless role as the generic, barely featured Love Interest.
Ritchie is far more successful behind the camera than as scriptwriter. His visual approach is a little more toned down than usual to match the performances, whilst occasional instances of smash cuts, and slow-mo make unwelcome appearances, by and large the camerawork and editing is muted, but assured, it never looks massively cinematic but always professional. A wide variety of locations paints a more interesting portrait of London than normally seen (in contrast to Lock Stock, a large part of the film takes place in the Suburbs), whilst the few set pieces are well choreographed.
Ironically though these very strengths also demonstrate RockNRolla’s biggest flaw. Richie’s earliest films worked because they were fresh and simple, not bogged down with attempts to be ‘clever’ or showy direction, the strong visuals and performances in this film, whilst certainly not a bad thing, add up to nothing when there isn’t a fun story for them to tell.
At the end of the film, it notes somewhat optimistically ‘Johnny, Archy and the Wild Bunch will be back in The Real RockNRolla’, although judging by this first film, it will be a largely unmerited return.
RockNRolla is a largely charmless, forgettable return to the Gangster Genre for Guy Ritchie, technical flair, and clever casting can’t cover the numerous plot holes and slow patches, whilst the sense of familiarity that pervades in the film does it few favours. Unassuming fans of the genre may well gain limited enjoyment from watching this film, but anyone else is likely to forget the film in a hurry, though not perhaps the sense of boredom.
4/10 Paul Ashwell