Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) is back to his old gangster games with this slick, convoluted tale of cross and double-cross among denizens of the London underworld. There’s lots of sizzle to “RocknRolla,” but in the end very little to chew on.
The bigwigs at the center of things are Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a nasty piece of work whose influence over a local government official (Jimi Mistry) gives him a good deal of clout in the booming real estate market, and Uri (Karel Roden), a rich Russian who buys his help to push through a stadium deal. For some reason—actually to drive the plot, and little more—Uri insists that Lenny take temporary charge of his “lucky painting.”
Uri’s accountant is the svelte, gorgeous, and totally unreliable Stella (Thandie Newton), who decides to arrange the theft of the millions he’s bringing into the country to pay Lenny by hiring bumbling minor thugs One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) to rob the couriers. They need cash because they borrowed big from Lenny to finance a real estate deal that he then turned around and sabotaged.
But the plot further thickens when Uri’s painting is stolen from Lenny, who assigns his right-hand man, imperturbable Archy (Mark Strong), to retrieve it. Turns out it was taken by Cole’s junkie stepson Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a rocker who’s faked his own death to boost his record sales. To find Johnny, who bears a grudge against his abusive stepdad, Lenny and Archy ultimately enlist the guy’s managers Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Chris Bridges). And all these plot threads, along with a few others, come together in a darkly flamboyant finale.
“RocknRolla” is shot in Ritchie’s usual hyperkinetic style, with lots of wild camera moves, speeded-up shots, whiplash edits and other assorted virtuoso tricks. There’s so much visual hubbub going on that for some it may obscure the fact that following all these unpleasant characters through the labyrinthine twists of a busily empty plot isn’t much fun. There’s literally nobody here to root for or ever care remotely about. So while one can admire the dexterity with which the director, cinematographer David Higgs and editor James Herbert have constructed an elaborate chase sequence that periodically halts to permit some brutal fistfights, when it’s over you feel more a rush of relief that of exhilaration. You also feel a bit concerned for the physical wellbeing of Butler, who’s the gasping quarry; but if he can survive the indignity of wearing a diaper in “300” he’ll probably survive this too. The same might not be said of Wilkinson, an excellent actor who’s reduced to going bald and playing the cantankerous coot in a way that’s likely to be a continuing embarrassment. On the other hand, Newton gets to slink about seductively, and Strong, who was the best thing in “Body of Lies,” moves with smooth assurance here.
For all its pizzazz, “RocknRolla” is actually a pretty dispiriting experience—an empty exercise in chicanery that, unlike a good heist, brings no solid payoff.