The most influential film of the past 15 years – for better or worse – was Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994), which changed the way young filmmakers approached everything from dialogue to story to plot construction, not to mention stylized violence and nihilistic attitudinizing.
(Natch, they missed the point of what Tarantino was trying to do in deconstructing gangster films – in the same way that, 25 years earlier, filmmakers missed the point of what Sam Peckinpah meant when he put his slow-motion “blood ballet” in “The Wild Bunch.” This led to a slew of movies with lots of slow-motion bloodshed, but only on the most superficial, thrill-seeking level.)
The most influential film of the past 10 years was also a gangster movie, a little number from 1998 called “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.” Written and directed by a Brit named Guy Ritchie, who had cut his teeth in commercials and music videos, it almost wasn’t released. But when it finally did hit theaters, it energized the genre with both camera bravado and dark humor in ways that marked it as an original – and spawned dozens of imitators ever since.
Some would pigeonhole Ritchie as a one-trick pony, working the same sort of rock/reggae/punk-fueled, narrative-diddling magic in his subsequent “Snatch” before bombing spectacularly with his wife’s vanity project, the unwatchable remake of Lina Wertmuller’s “Swept Away.” The same critics will now accuse Ritchie of having only the single arrow in his quiver because of his new film, “Rocknrolla.”
Ignore them. “RocknRolla” is a return to form for Ritchie – which means that it packs a stylistic punch, along with plenty of punchlines. Though Ritchie works in the gangster milieu, the most salient fact about his best films is that they’re comedies. Comedies with gangsters, comedies with violence, comedies with twisty plots and nasty surprises – and, in this case, a comedy with all of the above plus the unadulterated sex appeal of Thandie Newton.
Let’s see if we can make sense of the plot (though, really, it’s just an excuse for a dazzling string of comic character and action bits): There’s a nasty British gangland overlord, Lenny Cole, played with a wonderfully stiff-backed walk and reptilian unpredictability by the protean Tom Wilkinson. He lends money to a pair of lower-level criminal types, One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), for a business venture that he makes sure fails – then demands his money back (plus interest) in an unconscionably short time.
At the same time, Lenny is greasing the way for a Russian mobster’s move into London real estate. But when the Russian contacts his accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) to release the bags of cash he requires to pay Lenny, Stella tips One Two and Mumbles, who rip off the cash to pay their debt to Lenny. By the third time they’ve worked this scam, the Russian is ready for the next rip-off – and suspicious of Lenny. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
There’s also the matter of the Russian’s “lucky painting,” which he lends Lenny when Lenny admires it – and which is stolen from Lenny by his junkie stepson, Johnny Quid (fascinating newcomer Toby Kebbell). Johnny is a famous rock star who has dropped from sight to obliterate himself with heroin, while everyone looks for him.
Again, it’s not about the story: It’s about the way Ritchie makes pretzels out of your expectations about the story. His gangsters – at least the likable ones – are well-meaning lugs with larcenous impulses, but with a code of loyalty that leads them into funny cul-de-sacs. One Two, for example, has a crew member named Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), who is headed to jail. Bob’s his best friend – but One Two is shocked when Handsome Bob comes out of the closet to him and then makes one surprising pre-prison request.
Ritchie takes moments and maximizes them (like a weirdly funny, almost arrhythmic dance scene between Newton and Butler), or disassembles and reassembles them. His camera is always on the prowl, always suggesting but only occasionally showing things (that you wind up seeing in your imagination even more vividly than he could portray them).
Wilkinson, of course, is a known quantity, who has handled a wide variety of roles since he made his first impression stateside in the imported “Prime Suspect” (1991) and, subsequently, “The Full Monty” (1997). So his juicy, wicked performance here is no surprise.
Gerard Butler, on the other hand, has had few vehicles that afforded the kind of free-swinging, loosey-goosey feel that “RocknRolla” gives him. He was the best thing about the dreadful “P.S. I Love You,” and almost unrecognizable under makeup in “300” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Here, he’s like a fresh breeze of comedic criminality, a guy who makes impulsiveness funny and believable.
The real find is Toby Kebbell as the hilariously dissolute Johnny Quid, the fly in everyone’s ointment. Kebbell imbues him with the smarts to give his disintegration a tragic vein – but the self-awareness and sheer cussedness to be funny rather than disheartening.
“RocknRolla” won’t change your world but it will change your mood, lifting it like a good, long pull of nitrous oxide. Sometimes, really, that’s all you want.