Wow, has it really been a decade since Guy Ritchie’s last great movie? (you can argue this among yourselves obviously, but the answer is yes)
In 2008, the British Gangster Flick was a genre which was seen to have revitalised itself in the 1990s and then peaked on the other size of the millennial hill. In the company of producer Matthew Vaughn, Ritchie had spearheaded this movement with 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and its spiritual follow-up in the shape of 2000’s Snatch. Vaughn branched off alone to direct 2004’s Layer Cake, a film with a similar ethos but a far more cynical take on London’s criminal underworld.
These were received with critical and audience acclaim, but the trio was reputationally tarnished for its undeniable influence on the wider game. A slew of lower budget, try-hard clones emerged, often straight to video and heavy on the Britgrit but with less style and far less substance than their cinematic forebears. Ritchie, meanwhile, had had smaller successes outside of the geezer-verse with the poorly received romantic comedy Swept Away (2002), and the troubled, ponderous con-man flick Revolver (2005). So the director’s decision to return to the well of London once more was met with something less than roaring enthusiasm in critical circles…
In 2008, RocknRolla arrived, a cheeky swagger which had been missing from our screens for far too long. With an opening narration from London crime-lieutenant Archy (Mark Strong), the story revolves around The Wild Bunch, a trio of small-time grifters in the shape of Mumbles (Idris Elba), One-Two (Gerard Butler) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy). Working out of a cafe-cum-social-club known as The Speeler, a botched property deal that could have made the guys some legitimate cash leaves them in serious debt to one of the capital’s underhand movers and shakers, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). But power has its own problems, as Lenny’s old-school gangster is being slowly edged out of the city by the influx of corrupt Russian oligarchs, one of whom is Uri Omovich (Karel Roden).
Treading a thin line between being a profitable contact for Uri and becoming an inconvenience to be dealt with, Lenny’s life is further complicated when his heroin addicted, rock star stepson Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbel) returns – apparently from the grave – bringing utter chaos with him. To make matters worse, Uri’s accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) has grown tired of laundering money for her employer’s benefit, and has her eyes on a prize of her own. To acquire this, she’ll need the services of The Wild Bunch, beginning a haphazard game of cat-and-mouse spanning the gleaming heights and fetid depths of London’s East End…
Now, while that premise may sound needlessly complicated, this is in fact where Guy Ritchie comes into his own. RocknRolla is very much the third part of a stylistic trilogy, with Lock, Stock and Snatch. Each entails various groups of characters chasing each other in circles to get their hands on a macguffin. And it says a lot about Ritchie’s fascination with the old-school that these items aren’t simply holdalls full of cash (although those feature very prominently as well), but status symbols to be coveted as trophies of power. The first film in this series featured a pair of antique shotguns, the second a huge diamond. RocknRolla sees our characters falling over themselves to get their hands on a painting (presumably an old one given its ornate frame, but much like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the audience doesn’t actually see the picture – only the characters’ awe-struck reaction to it).
On a broader level, Ritchie’s movie is about the ever-changing face of London and the constant shifting of power, but this obsession with historical artefacts illustrates that greed remains timeless, even when buildings don’t. Cinematographer David Higgs isn’t afraid to lionise the shining spires of the redeveloped Docklands area, but also celebrates the genuine bonhomie of an illicit backroom crime-den. The filmmakers acknowledge that tastes change, but don’t join the chorus of yellow Range Rovers to make the point.
By far the glossiest of Guy’s gangster tales, the secret to retaining the likeability of some truly reprehensible characters is Reg Poerscout-Edgerton’s casting. Elba, Butler and Hardy emit an all-round charm as soon as they step out of bed, of course, and have a fantastic chemistry together which sells them as a team. Mark Strong is equally difficult to dislike, especially here as his put upon number-two character of Archy is constantly trying to diplomatically restrain his increasingly unhinged boss, played by Tom Wilkinson.
And Wilkinson’s Lenny Cole is relentlessly awful; xenophobic, misogynistic, petty and vindictive. In many an actor’s hands, this part would become an overblown monster, chewing the scenery every time the camera’s on him. However, Wilkinson plays the role as someone who’s on their way back down the authority-ladder, but either hasn’t noticed or admitted that yet. As dreadful as Cole is, Wilkinson remains innately watchable because of how obliviously pathetic he makes him. Contrast this performance with Kenneth Cranham’s Jimmy Price in Layer Cake, as to whose screen-presence is more entertaining on a theatrical level.
To a lesser degree, this applies to all of the story’s players. whether they’re rough diamonds or abrasive ne’er-do-wells, all have had their rough edges filed away to fit smoothly into a more accessible film. Well, ‘accessible’ might be an optimistic term when thinking of the one-sided fight scene outside the Cheshire Cheese pub in Tower Hill, but on the whole this is a slick affair. Much like Lock, Stock and Snatch, all of the illegal activities take place here without so much as a sniff of a police presence (in fact in those earlier entries, the authorities at least show up at the end). And in RocknRolla, these activities include the aforementioned street-brawl, a pair of armed robberies and an unorthodox round of golf. In this cinematic rendering of the East End, any justice served upon the characters is purely poetic. And this doesn’t come across from the characters in a boastful fashion, it’s more that the Old Bill aren’t something they stop to consider.
The legacy of the film has been somewhat muted, given that most of its stars were established actors to begin with. But if superhero-cinema is any barometer of thespic success, it’s interesting to note that from the Wild Bunch alone, Idris Elba went on to become Heimdall in Thor and throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Hardy went on to don the mask of Batman‘s Bane and will soon become Venom, while Gerard Butler turned up with a scowl and a suit of armour in the cinematic pantomime that is Gods of Egypt. Maybe next year, Gerry…
The lingering card after the credits states that “Johnny, Archy and the Wild Bunch will be back in The Real RocknRolla”, a still-unproduced sequel that Ritchie mentions in the DVD commentary as a project he’s already worked on writing, to some level. But is that something we really need? While it’d certainly be fun to catch up with the gang again, this first film leaves them (well, the surviving ones, at any rate) at the beginning of new adventures, rather than the end of old ones. For most of the audience, these are the sort of people you’d meet once and then be secretly thankful if you never dealt with them again. They’re tales to be told around a pub table which stretch credulity, and we’re happy that The Wild Bunch are getting into scrapes somewhere as long as it’s nowhere near us. “Goodbye, bon voyage…” etc, as Johnny Quid once said.
Critical reception for RocknRolla wasn’t as glowing as Guy’s earlier outings, although the general consensus was that anything was better than Swept Away. Trying his hand with the mainstream once more, Guy went on to bring us two Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey Jr’s interpretation being a respectable accompaniment to the detective’s overall screen-canon, rather than a proper addition). But the flashes of the old Ritchie magic found in the first were all but gone by its sequel, A Game Of Shadows. And while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and King Arthur have their fans, each feels like Guy playing in someone else’s sandpit.
So, the recent announcement that Ritchie is now embarking on a new “British crime caper” in the shape of Toff Guys has been met with understandably cautious excitement.
But – round this manor at least – excitement nonetheless…
RocknRolla is available to rent and buy on the UK’s leading streaming services, while old-school fans of physical media shouldn’t have too much trouble locating a copy in the usual places.