Professional film critics, as with film makers, have target audiences and whether or not they set out consciously to do so their reviews are generally a distortion of their true opinion. Thankfully, I’ve no idea what constitutes an average DVD Times’ reader so I’m going to take the radical step of telling you what I actually thought of RocknRolla... it’s a shallow, clichéd but mildly amusing gangster film.
Predictably for a Guy Ritchie film, RocknRolla’s plot is more easily communicated by means of a labyrinthine flowchart than an opening paragraph summary. Naturally there are gangsters, guns and girls tied up in a convoluted series of plot twists set in London. In this particular case we have a Russian billionaire looking to develop property by exploiting the connections of some local gangsters. There are also a bunch of geezer criminals “The Wild Bunch”, a voluptuous female accountant and the titular RocknRolla who bears an uncanny similarity to Russell Brand.
These characters are the usual clichéd farrago of likeable rogues, female eye candy, tough lieutenants and cultured bosses. None of the characters would take any more than a line to summarise and remarkably not a single character takes an “emotional journey” beyond enduring the events which involve them before reverting to normal or being killed. We are left to identify each character via a single major characteristic: a gay character, a posh woman, a boss who has an office with art on the wall, a black man who looks tough but prefers to use his brain, etc. But what the characters lack in quality is made up for in quantity with at least twenty characters contributing significantly to the plot. This is a Ritchie trait which really betrays the inefficiency of his storytelling and the inevitable decrease in each character's average screen time makes it difficult to care about any of them.
RocknRolla isn’t as funny as I remember Lock Stock or Snatch being but then it’s entirely feasible that taken in isolation that it is. The problem of course is that we’ve heard it all countless times now and the novelty of the geezer expletive littered banter has long since worn off. A bolder, more inspired filmmaker might have played on the stereotypes to mix things up a bit (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being a recent example) but there’s no evidence of genre self deprecation here whatsoever and it has to be assumed that this dialogue is genuinely what Ritchie considers to be an accurate representation of cockney gangsters going about their daily business.
But the law of averages dictates that if you try enough permutations of expletive and insult combinations that some of them will be funny. Some of them are funny to an extent but not because they’re clever or particularly offensive but either because they sound good or an expletive is used with a word you wouldn't usually associate with an insult. Ritchie endlessly recycling such lines is just about acceptable if you attribute it to his style but the nadir is reached when the characters start using the phrase “jog on” (recently popularised in The Football Factory) incessantly which suggests that Ritchie isn’t inventing half of this stuff but just lifting it lock, stock and barrel (sorry) from people he knows.
Ritchie does seem to have taken on board the not unsubstantial criticism he rightly received for Revolver. A harsh lesson indeed that poorly conceived ambiguity and potential for viewer interpretation are more likely to undermine storytelling than to provide it with depth. (Even Christopher Nolan’s debut film Following suffered from this, but then he completely nailed it in The Prestige). RocknRolla is a return to form or rather safe ground for Ritchie who is clearly capable of style but seems destined never to master the subtlety and nuance required for genuine depth of characterisation. It would be interesting to see what he could achieve working from someone else’s material but then ego (the hallowed “written and directed” credit) and the preponderance towards visual spectacle doesn’t really bode well.
There are plenty of shots of the London skyline and a reasonably eclectic mix of locations which initially provide the film the illusion of substantial scope. This illusion is short lived though as the film soon reverts to the clichéd mix of gangster dens, warehouses and back alley locales as a stage for the storyline to play out upon. Say what you like about Layer Cake (“it was rubbish” works for me) but the budget was very much up on the screen with sweeping helicopter shots and street scenes to provide context to the action. In comparison RocknRolla is a small film about an isolated group of individuals who never seem credible in the “modern London” which the film spectacularly fails to accurately represent. Admittedly it does feature several shot of the Gherkin which has already reached levels of filmic skyline ubiquity as the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower.
So after all the promise of a something genuinely new from Ritchie, all of the film’s events fall squarely into traditional gangster territory except for a brief flirtation with bisexuality, music and a mysterious, never-revealed painting which evokes memories of the glowing suitcase from Pulp Fiction. The film, it seems, has been built around a few of the more interesting action scenes which isn’t necessarily a bad thing had they been particularly outstanding; but are they’re nothing you haven’t seen a hundred times before. For the reasons outlined above, I didn't have the slightest interest in whether any of the characters lived or died by the end. Yet somehow despite its flaws I did enjoy the time I spent with some of RocknRolla's characters and the chance to see them again in "The Real RocknRolla" is welcome. So, there you have it, RocknRolla will neither be the best nor worst film you will see at the cinema this year and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.