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Roll with the punches

Overstuffed, droll RocknRolla gets Guy Ritchie back to form

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 31, 2008 at 3:20 a.m.

rock-star-johnny-quid-tobey-kebbell-and-his-managers-mickey-chris-bridges-and-roman-jeremy-piven-are-considering-their-shaky-chances-of-survival-in-rocknrolla

Rock star Johnny Quid (Tobey Kebbell) and his managers Mickey (Chris Bridges) and Roman (Jeremy Piven) are considering their shaky chances of survival in RocknRolla

— RocknRolla86Cast: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton Director: Guy Ritchie Rating: R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality Running time: 114 minutes

On its own merits, RocknRolla is a dry, black joke of a movie, another cartoonish thugfest from Guy Ritchie populated with lovablenot-so-wise guys from some mythical London underworld. It's probably as authentic a depiction of reality as Transformers, but for those wholike a little verbiage with our crashes it's got a large advantage.

It's easy to see it as a retreat to safe turffor Ritchie, who before he married Madonna and put her in a crazy remake of Swept Away (2002) had established himself as a sort of British Tarantino manque with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

Ritchie went even further afield in 2005 with the little-seen and widely reviled psychological freakout Revolver, a genuinely crazy movie that found its cult on DVD.

Now, the theory goes, having jettisoned his Yoko Ono, Ritchie has returned to his roots with this good-natured and bloody shaggy-dog story of petty crooks attempting to carve out their piece of the booming London real estate market. It's an intentionally convoluted story that would take paragraphs to sketch out, and the Cockney accents employed by the actors are thick enough to make you wish (fleetingly,for your ear catches on) for subtitles, but if you like the genre you'll love this.

RocknRolla is a genre picture populated by the usual suspects including Gerard Butler as a gold-hearted snakebit lug called One Two, and the promising Toby Kebbell (remarkable as the manager in Control) as Johnny Quid, a Pete Dohertyesque punk singer who's faked his death in order to boost album sales and better commune with his crack pipe. Johnny's stepdad is old-line crime boss Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) who's trying to move up to the international leagues via a deal with a ruthless Russian billionaire (Karel Roden) looking to build a sports complex in London. For a price, Lenny can grease the locals, secure the necessary committee approvals, etc.

When Quid gets low on cash, he burglarizes Lenny's flat and makes off with a MacGuffin of a "lucky" painting the Russian has entrusted to his new business associate. About the same time, the Russian's luck turns bad when One Two and his band of colorfulyobs hijack the bribe cash meant for Lenny. They were tipped off by Stella (Thandie Newton), the Russian's brilliant but bored (by her job and her marriage of convenience to a gay solicitor) accountant who fancies One Two and is fancied by her boss.

Got it? Well, it doesn't matter - as in any Ritchie film, the point of RocknRolla is less important than the textures, which understandably rub some moviegoers the wrong way. The movie is overstuffed with characters, each of whom have "surprising" (meaning predictably novel) quirks. So we have the tough guy secretly in love with his alpha figure, the mobster with the taste for Merchant-Ivory period pieces, a lot of "did you know?" ephemera dropped into the dialogue.

It only works if you're susceptible to it and you can take the underlying threat of violence that pervades this only occasionally violent film. It has some very funny moments - a protracted chase with a couple of bulletproof Chechens, a flashcut zipless sex scene, a hilarious frug featuring Butler and Newton, and a dash of visual style.

It's a nice diversion and if you're not one of those people whoholds grudges about other people's unfulfilled potential ("Why is Guy Ritchie wasting his time - and ours - by making the same movie again and again?"), you might find yourself entertained.

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 42 on 10/31/2008

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