In recent years the release of a new Guy Ritchie feature has become a major talking point - for all the wrong reasons. Not so much a launch, more a public flogging. You'd think that after the debacle of Swept Away and Revolver, he'd throw us all a sheepish grin and amble back to the pub. Yet, time and again, he drags his director's chair from the allotment and breezily plonks it down in the middle of the corpse-strewn warzone that is the business of film. At the very least you've got to admire his tenacity. And as he stresses, none of his movies have actually lost money so far.
Tom Wilkinson is Lenny Cole, old-style gangster-cum-property developer, with councillors and half of London's skyline in his sky rocket. A tax-dodging seven million euro deal with a new Russian oligarch on the block, the Abramovich-like Uri, is compromised after Lenny loses the "lucky" painting Uri has loaned him in a display of good will.
The painting, stolen by a couple of Scally junkies, winds up in the hands of Lenny's stepson, crackhead musician Johnny Quid, reported missing at sea, though very much alive and terrorising clubland. Because, clearly, that's what our wimpy, smacked-up, skinny-trousered indie rockers are capable of these days; leaving bouncers for dead.
Also in the mix are a trio of stick-up guys dubbed the 'Wild Bunch'. After finding themselves in hock to Cole, the Bunch hatch a plan with Uri's treacherous femme fatale accountant Stella (Newton) to rip off the Russian, acquiring that painting along the way.
Then things get messy. This is a Ritchie plot after all, akin to one of those children's puzzles where the finger must follow a number of tangled fishing lines to see if Ernie the Eskimo, Wally the Whaler or Pat the Poacher is having mackerel for supper. One thing you can be sure of: following a number of near-misses, each party will bump into one another at the climax and have a massive fishfight.
If this all sounds familiar, it's probably because Ritchie has just re-made Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Not content with being a magpie's magpie (The Long Good Friday and Pulp Fiction are both reflexively referenced here), he's also started ripping off his own films.
Fair enough. Even the dimmest bulb must eventually come round to the fact that, when all else fails, it's prudent to nudge the least mouldiest bit of old fruit to the top of the apple cart. But a decade after Ritchie surfed that frothing zeitgeist, there's an appalling weariness about RocknRolla, a terrible sense of sadness, surely springing from the lesson that trying to bust out of one's own limited remit doesn't always pay off.
Unfortunately, the director can now barely remember how he got the right things right in the first place. Yet again, a film jumping with fantastic character actors has been utterly capsized by the script. There are actors here the calibre of Idris Elba - Guy (or his people) have been watching 'The Wire'. And Matt 'Super Hans' King - Guy (or his people) has been watching 'Peep Show'. And not least, the extraordinary Toby Kebbell, here apparently channelling Russell Brand.
Against Ritchie's juggernaut of mediocrity they are all powerless to resist. Mark Strong, for instance (in his second Ritchie film after Revolver), has been rewarded for his loyalty with a bigger role as Lenny's enforcer Archie - though simultaneously punished with more dialogue. It is deeply depressing to watch King voice lines like, "This lot are doing more bugle than a brass section" and indeed, every utterance sounds like a photo caption from 'Maxim' magazine: "In there like swimwear"; "Think before you drink before you drive me mad"; and repeatedly (that new favourite phrase of mockneys everywhere): "Jog on."
At one point, Uri actually says to Lenny without irony, "We are very much alike, you and I", while scintillating exchanges such as "Reality is a cruel mistress"; "I must remember that"; "Be my guest" are par for the course.
Elsewhere, there are some schoolboy giggles at the expense of Uri's enormous semi-naked henchmen, as if the Epic Movie team were remaking David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises; although, keen to emphasize his noughties credentials, Ritchie has Elba saying of a gay Wild Buncher, "If I could be half the human Bob is, at the price of being a poof, I'd think about it." Well, it's almost convincing. Yet as an encounter between Butler and the dull, not-especially-fatale Newton demonstrates, Guy's films aren't all that interested in straight sex either.
Those under-and-over-cranked cameras may be less in-your-face this time round, but there's no disguising the director's other tics; convoluted plot lines; daft-names; the same old railway arches and tunnels, 'gritty' backdrops for the same tired old chase scenes; those interminable cracker barrel philosophies, like sallies from a depressed barfly: "There is no spring without a winter. And no life without death." Or, "That which starts sweet ends bitter. And that which starts bitter ends sweet." It's as if Ritchie didn't realise Being There was a satire.
Wading through this stuff is akin to peeping through one's fingers at a retired, punch-drunk boxer climbing into the ring, or a recidivist junkie ripping out their naltrexone implants. It is especially traumatic to witness Stringer Bell from 'The Wire' wearing a motorcycle helmet with comedy teddy bear ears. In the run up to the film's release even Ritchie's US distributor, Warners, decided to scale down the film's marketing operation, saying "It's funny in spots..." but "not broadly commercial."
Someone thinks differently; at the end of RocknRolla comes the awful revelation: 'Archie, Johnny and the Wild Bunch will be back in The Real RocknRolla'; the first of two proposed sequels. As Archie muses, "That's the thing about greed. It's blind. And it doesn't know when to stop."
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