After the one-two punch of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005), Guy Ritchie’s career had hit rock bottom. The former movie was an ill-conceived remake with his then-wife Madonna and which tanked spectacularly. The latter movie pushed his distinctive brand of crime story too far, alienating many of the fans he acquired with the immensely entertaining and popular Snatch (2000). Ritchie wisely regrouped and got back to basics with RocknRolla (2008), which was a welcome return to the tried and true formula that launched his career with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). This involved a caper story with plenty of plot twists that mixed laughs with stylized action as a colorful assortment of gangsters and thugs bounced off each other all scored to an eclectic soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll music. Best of all, it gave meaty roles to then-emerging actors Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and Mark Strong – relative unknowns in North America, but who have gone on to appear in mainstream Hollywood movies.
Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is a ruthless gangster who runs London with the help of his right hand man Archy (Mark Strong). Lenny is gobbling up as much real estate in the city as he can, but faces stiff competition from an aggressive Russian billionaire named Uri (Karel Roden). Enter One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), two small-time crooks that front a crew known as the Wild Bunch and who are also trying to acquire their own chunk of real estate, but need the cash and clout that only Lenny can provide. Unbeknownst to them, the elder gangster screws One Two and Mumbles out of a deal. Now, they need to come up with some money and quick. So, One Two contacts Stella (Thandie Newton), a beautiful accountant (she works for Uri), who gives them a job that soon has the two criminals running afoul of Uri’s seemingly indestructible henchmen.
The wild card in this mix is Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), Lenny’s estranged step-son and a rock star presumed dead, but who is very much alive and slumming with a dim-witted junkie. Add in Uri’s lucky painting, which has gone missing while in Lenny’s possession and you’ve got the makings for a very entertaining caper movie.
Much like the gangsters in Quentin Tarantino’s crime films (and a filmmaker Ritchie is often compared to), Ritchie’s crooks are a chatty bunch, not above pontificating about the right way to slap someone or the introduction of American crayfish into the Thames River in the 1970s. And like in QT’s films, most of the crooks talk excessively as a form of survival. It’s when they stop talking that bad things happen.
Ritchie’s witty screenplay gives his very talented cast all kinds of memorable dialogue to spout and so we get moments like an amusing bit where Archy chastises an underling for not slapping another one properly and proceeds to school him in the most eloquent fashion. Mark Strong doesn’t have to do much in this scene because he exudes a confident presence and a kind of casual menace that intimidates those around him. Even minor characters get their moment to shine, like two junkies – one a smooth talker, the other a complete space cadet – who comes into the Wild Bunch’s hangout trying to sell them fur coats in the middle of summer!
Watching this film again reminds one how Hollywood has failed miserably to exploit Butler’s talents as a suave leading man with a capacity for comedy. He’s not afraid to act silly and look good doing it. The flirty give and take he has with Thandie Newton’s sexy accountant is reminiscent of the kind of sexual chemistry George Clooney had with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (1998). In a perfect world, Butler would have Clooney’s career in the U.K. instead of doing forgettable garbage like The Ugly Truth (2009) and Playing for Keeps (2012).
Ritchie also gives us moments that show the strong bond between the Wild Bunch crew, especially best mates One Two and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) in a scene where the latter, clearly upset about an impending stretch in prison, tells the former that he’s gay and that he fancies him. It is an oddly touching and amusing scene that provides insight into their friendship while also showcasing the acting talents of Gerard Butler and Tom Hardy. Part of the joy of RocknRolla is watching the likes of Mark Strong and Tom Wilkinson getting a chance to chew on this meaty dialogue and have a blast doing it.
Versatile character actor Wilkinson plays the film’s baddie, a xenophobic bully in dire need of a much-deserved comeuppance. He’s the typical Ritchie villain – an old school gangster who thinks that fear and intimidation will keep everyone in line, but makes the fatal mistake of underestimating the wild card factor, which is Johnny Quid who has been patiently biding his time until he can exact retribution for years of abuse. Idris Elba and Tom Hardy also have memorable supporting roles as part of the Wild Bunch crew and get a chance to spar verbally with Butler while also getting in on some of the action in an exciting sequence where they attempt to rob the Russian mob.
Ritchie also shares Tarantino’s knack for marrying just the right song to a given scene and so One Two and Stella flirt while “Have Love, Will Travel” by The Sonics blasts over the soundtrack and we get insight into Lenny and Johnny’s turbulent relationship via flashback, scored to “Bankrobber” by The Clash. In keeping with his other films, Ritchie also throws in some vintage tunes, like “Outlaw” by War and “Funnel of Love” by Wanda Jackson for quite the eclectic soundtrack that enhances the brisk tone that is established right from the first scene.
RocknRolla was inspired by Guy Ritchie’s fascination with the presence of large amounts of foreign money – usually from Eastern Bloc countries – in London’s crime scene: “I wanted to take a humourous look at the consequences of the new school pushing in on the territory of the old school.” He wanted it set in London because, at the time, it was becoming an international sensation: “London is in the middle of the world in the sense that it’s often the last place you go on your way to America, and it’s the first place you arrive before you get to Europe.” Producer Joel Silver was a fan of Ritchie’s blend of action and comedy and within 24 hours of reading the screenplay for RocknRolla knew that he wanted to make it.
Ritchie realized that London had changed a lot since he made Lock, Stock and wanted RocknRolla to reflect that. He and production designer Richard Bridgland sought out parts of the city that were brand new or being rebuilt and looked for spaces that had a grandeur to them. To this end, they managed to get permission to film in the new Wembley Stadium – the first production given permission, which was quite the coup. As per Ritchie’s preference, the film was shot over a brisk six weeks using HD cameras.
Before RocknRolla’s release, Warner Bros. president Alan Horn saw the film and felt that it was not “broadly commercial,” was “very English,” and only had “funny spots.” As a result, the studio did not give it a wide release and even Ritchie admitted, “I’m not sure if Alan quite knows what to do with it.” RocknRolla received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It never slows down enough to be really good, and never speeds up enough to be the Bourne Mortgage Crisis, but there’s one thing for sure: British actors love playing gangsters as much as American actors love playing cowboys, and it’s always nice to see people having fun.”
In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The violence is idiotic and brutal (the story is just idiotic), but it’s also so noncommittal that it doesn’t offend. Like the filmmaking itself, the violence has no passion, no oomph, no sense of real or even feigned purpose.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “He concocts a crime-jungle demimonde that’s organically linked to the real world, and it’s a damn fun one to visit.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Ritchie has a portrait-satirist’s gift for creating supporting characters that’s almost in the league of Preston Sturges, the pinwheeling comic genius of 1940s Hollywood. Now if only he could duplicate Sturges’ range of milieu.” USA Today gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “His edgy and visually bracing direction is better than his writing, though his oft-imitated, fast-paced style doesn’t seem nearly as fresh as it once did.”
Along with Layer Cake (2004), a British gangster film directed by Matthew Vaughn (Ritchie’s former long-time producer), RocknRolla addressed the notion of London as one of the premiere, desirable cities in the world to live in and how this made real estate values go through the roof. This, in turn, fueled all kinds of criminal enterprises and Ritchie shows how gangs diversified along ethnic lines. He doesn’t belabor the point, but instead has it in the background as part of the film’s tapestry. While RocknRolla didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, it was a return to form for Ritchie and paved the way for his Sherlock Holmes (2009) gig that has made him a sought after director of big budget studio moves. It would be a shame, however, if he didn’t return to this world and deliver on the sequel promised in the closing credits. Oh yeah, and also rescue Gerard Butler from mediocrity.
RocknRolla Production Notes, 2008.
McLean, Craig. “It’s A Guy Thing.” The Guardian. August 23, 2008.