After shipwrecking with “Swept Away” and misfiring with “Revolver,” Brit filmmaker Guy Ritchie bounces back to top form with “RocknRolla,” a cleverly constructed, sensationally stylish and often darkly hilarious seriocomic caper. Marginally more restrained than his attention-grabbing breakthrough efforts — “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” — his new pic proves just as aggressively exciting while zigzagging through an intricate maze of plots and counterplots, dirty deals and double-crosses. Commercial prospects are generally bright in all media, although thick accents and unfamiliar slanguage employed by the predominantly Brit cast may impede pic’s appeal to mainstream U.S. ticketbuyers.
Gerard Butler emerges as first among equals in an impressive ensemble cast as One Two, a small-time hustler hoping to become a big-time entrepreneur by entering the booming London real-estate market.
Along with partners-in-crime Mumbles (Idris Elba of TV’s “The Wire”) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), One Two attempts a bit of property speculation with a loan from Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), an influence-peddling, bureaucrat-bribing crime boss who knows where all the bodies are buried (largely because he buried many of them himself). Cole duly pulls the right strings — but only so he can stealthily lasso the property for himself and still demand repayment from One Two.
Not surprisingly for a Ritchie pic, the deception sets off an interlocking chain of contrivances, coincidences, intricate plans and desperate improvisations. To repay Cole, One Two and his crew sign on as heisters for Stella (Thandie Newton), a curvaceous and very crooked accountant working for criminally inclined Russian billionaire Uri Obamavich (Karel Roden).
The busy plot grows exponentially more complex each time writer-helmer Ritchie drops another colorful character into the mix. Among the more significant complicating factors: Archy (Mark Strong), Lenny’s resolutely loyal and fiercely unforgiving right-hand man; Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), American rock promoters who are inadvertently involved with the hunt for a stolen painting; and Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a spectacularly wasted punk rocker who’s the black-sheep stepson of — yes, you guessed it — Lenny Cole.
“RocknRolla” barrels along at a brisk clip that’s never noticeably decelerated by the occasional inclusion of flashbacks and flash-forwards. In a pic chockfull of kinetic set pieces, it’s almost unfair to single out individual sequences. But it’s safe to say that auds may get giddy watching a robbery that begins with a purposeful collision of car and truck, continues with a frenzied battle involving golf clubs and automatic weaponry, and climaxes with an audaciously extended foot chase. Through it all, Ritchie steadily ratchets up the thriller-diller quotient by suggesting two Russian thugs (who resemble refugees from “Eastern Promises”) are, quite literally, unkillable.
Pic frequently borders on the cartoonish — or, during the rapid-fire opening-credits sequence, the graphic-novelish — but also offers touches of cheeky drollery. (Note the smooth moves and scene thievery of Nonso Anozie as a soft-spoken, plus-size underworld type fond of Whistler paintings and Merchant-Ivory movies.) Final wrap-up isn’t exactly airtight, but the entwining of the various plot threads is genuinely amusing.
Thesps across the board are well cast and, more important, well attuned to Ritchie’s style of carefully calibrated exaggeration. (Kebbell is particularly adept at handling the writer-helmer’s trademark sardonic monologues.) Standout tech values include gritty-glossy high-def lensing by David Higgs and razor-sharp editing by James Herbert.