From “You dirty rat” to “I’m gonna make an offer he can’t refuse,” the gangster film has been an all-American genre that audiences gobble up and the rest of the world tries to emulate.
But British director Guy Ritchie turned the gangster movie inside out in 1998 with “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.” And he’s flipping more of the same switches with “RocknRolla,” which goes into wide release Friday – a splashy dark comedy about low-level London crooks creating comic chaos while dodging the anger of their higher-ups in a plot involving real estate, missing artworks and, of course, rock’n’roll.
With its aggressive camera work and lightning-fast editing, “RocknRolla” expands upon the early films that established Ritchie as the most influential director to explode on the gangster-movie scene since Quentin Tarantino first dropped a cluster of “F” bombs.
“To some people, ‘Lock Stock’ and ‘Snatch’ are a defining moment in British cinema,” says actor Gerard Butler, who plays a resourceful crook named One Two in “RocknRolla.” “My first year as an actor, ‘Lock Stock’ came out and I thought, ‘I wish I could be in a movie like that.’”
The archetypal American gangster film was a morality tale of good and evil, in which charismatic killers eventually were brought to justice by upstanding cops and FBI men. While directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese turned that moral equation on its head when they focused on the criminals, the gangster film remained an almost exclusively American artform.
“You’ve got so many people making them over here that they seem to come in different flavors – but there is no real gangster-film tradition in England,” Ritchie observes.
Ritchie found a way to supercharge the gangster movie by injecting it with eye-catching camera and editing techniques he picked up in his early work as a director on commercials and music videos. The highly distilled storytelling required in a three-minute video – or a 30-second spot – taught him to innovate at a merciless pace.
“The commercial and promotion guys were so much more competitive that they were forced to be creative,” Ritchie says. “It didn’t take long for me to realize how efficient and ruthless you had to be. You develop a style through a challenge like that.”
Before Ritchie, the closest thing Great Britain had to a gangster-film tradition was the occasional dark action film with a crime setting: 1971’s “Get Carter” or 1980’s “The Long Good Friday.” But Ritchie triggered a renaissance in England with 1998’s “Lock Stock,” that included his own “Snatch” (2000) and 2004’s “Layer Cake.” The big difference? Unlike his American predecessors, Ritchie doesn’t take himself all that seriously.
“This is absolutely an entertainment,” says Thandie Newton, who plays a resourceful female character in “RocknRolla,” a first for Ritchie in his gangster universe. (Though not in his overall filmmaking: The less said about soon-to-be-ex-wife Madonna’s performance in the Ritchie-directed 2002 bomb, “Swept Away,” the better.) Continues Newton, “It’s a virtual-reality tour of Ritchie World and how he wants to entertain people.”
Says Ritchie, “Mine are caricatures, done tongue-in-cheek. It’s not taking a realistic social position. My main motive is to do what I find entertaining.”
Still, he admits that the gangster-movie genre has built-in advantages when it comes to telling a headlong story in a jet-propelled visual style.
“They’re more efficient, gangster movies – there’s an instant polarization between so-called right and wrong,” Ritchie says. “There are laws to them, as opposed to the ambiguity of your own mind. They allow you to cut to the dilemma more efficiently.”