'RocknRolla" is rehabbed Guy Ritchie. By his standards the movie is a two-hour serenity prayer that only happens to feature a junkie. Real estate here is the new crack. And the twitchy, stammering, over-cranked gangsta bang-bang of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" for once settles into a relatively patient adventure in crime-movie filth. One hesitates to say a movie whose shots manage to last longer than a Britney Spears marriage represents a breakthrough for its maker, but restraint is a new virtue for Ritchie.
His typical factions are all here: well-dressed London thugs (gentlemen on this side; hipsters over here; dupes through the next room), nincompoop henchmen, and smart-alec side players. The difference this time is that Ritchie's enthusiasm for these people - men named One Two and Handsome Bob, a fashionable crime ring called the Wild Bunch - is actually contagious. Ritchie's undercranking allows more time to appreciate his performers, even when they're caught up in embarrassing yet affectionate asides about a gay crook.
It's fun to see Tom Wilkinson, for instance, with a massive bald spot virtually eating scenery with a knife and fork as a hopelessly crooked (he walks with a limp) businessman named Lenny. The sight of Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton doing a diffidently narcoleptic shimmy together is just a zombified version of what John Travolta and Uma Thurman were up to in "Pulp Fiction." But the
Ritchie has a rough time building a plot around these people. If he's bad at keeping still, he's worse with architecture. The different plots keep fading out of view. But the gist is navigable enough. One Two (Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba), and their Wild Bunch are mixed up in a souring property deal with Lenny, who's doing business with Uri (Karel Roden), a Russian tycoon with hilariously deep pockets - or, courtesy of his accountant, Stella (Newton), illusorily deep ones.
Lenny's stepson is Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), the junkie and eponymous rocknrolla. Mark Strong plays Lenny's number two, Archy; and Ludacris and a bearably smug Jeremy Piven pop up as a pair of record-producing nightclub owners. They're all more or less swirling around a stolen painting.
The tangents - parties, sex, sub-Tarantino small talk - are more fun and less work than whatever Ritchie's script is up to. His nesting-doll capers are always missing those crucial core dolls, so what he's left with every time is an empty shell in search of a point. The conceit of his contraptions should be glorious: Everybody's in over their heads except for Ritchie, who's pulling the strings. But he's never been much of a puppeteer.
However fewer cuts per second Ritchie uses this time, he clearly prefers to do his thinking in the editing room rather than in the planning phase. As a consequence his movies feel unrehearsed but without the thrill of improvisation or spontaneity that should come with loose style. He tried to mix crime and philosophy with "Revolver," which came out here last year, and it was a tragic night at the movies, like seeing an illiterate person pretend to read. For almost two hours, the book was upside down.
Ritchie's style has spawned negligible imitations like "Smokin' Aces" from last year. Meanwhile, his counterparts, like the contemplative American James Gray ("The Yards," "We Own the Night"), have the natural soul that Ritchie might be too shallow to explore. Ritchie makes cartoon tributes. He's the Tom Jones of gangster films. Still, "RocknRolla" is more like it. This is the first of his cartoons to work better as a movie than as a fashion spread.