Having reviewed (read: suffered) his last movie, Revolver, for this site last year, I was convinced the Guy Ritchie had lost his mind. So the fact I found his new movie RocknRolla entertaining was more than a pleasant surprise. Ritchie ditches all the pretentious nonsense that bogged down his previous effort, all those cheap imitations of his other more successful Hollywood counterparts and Jason “I have all the range of a spitball” Statham, and goes back to doing what he does best; cheeky British gangster caper movies. However it's something that turns out to be the movie's greatest strength and it's biggest failing.
The sprawling plot boils down to three main stories; Two low-level crooks who owe mob boss Lenny Cole a large sum of cash, Cole's own dodgy dealings with a shady Russian entrepreneur and a junkie rock star who has faked his own death to push up his record sales. Throwing together more supporting characters than the entire Police Academy franchise combined, these three plot strands link up via a crooked accountant and the Russian's “lucky” painting, possibly the most shameless MacGuffin since the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III.
Inevitably, as with all these kinds of movies, all the storylines and characters involved come head-to-head for the bloody final act, but not before another of Ritchie's patented violent but tongue-in-cheek jaunts through the London underworld. The usual robberies, beatings and shootouts are punctuated by scenes that border on ridiculous, like One Two (Gerard Butler) dealing with the unexpected coming out of his best friend who is facing jail (one of the movie's funniest recurring jokes), as well as the problem of a couple of seemingly indestructible, psychotic hitmen. The game cast and Ritchie's wise decision never to let the movie take itself too seriously mean it all fits together snugly enough. Butler proves himself to be a competent and likeable leading man, given more range to be a person rather than the snarling he-man he was in 300. And Tom Wilkinson hams it up enough to be offensive to Jews as Lenny Cole, the most stereotypical of gruff old London mobsters.
This mock-cockney underworld stuff is all fine and fun until you think about it too long and realize that, when stripped down, this is Just Another Guy Ritchie Film™. If you've ever seen Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, you'll recognize a lot of what going on in RocknRolla: the bantering minions who owe a mob boss money, the plan to rip off someone, the previously mentioned MacGuffin used to manipulate pieces in to position as required. It's all here and it's all been used before, by Ritchie, in his previous two gangland flicks. Scorsese might live on making endless movies about New York mobsters, but they all have the good grace to be markedly different.
Swept Away and Revolver perhaps prove that Ritchie doesn't have the ability to move beyond this genre of film, but if the formula doesn't change to a more drastic degree he runs the risk of repeatedly reworking the same movie over and over again. Perhaps like M. Night Shyalaman, he is too close to his own writing work to expand and grow successfully or accept criticism. While RocknRolla might put a slightly different spin on the same material and provides some laughs and thrills along the way, it's familiarity is bound to be something to which people will eventually catch on to and resent him for. The promise of a sequel should raise as much concern as it does excitement.