“Swagger” isn’t a word readily associated with British movies. We’ve come a long way from The Italian Job… through the 80s; the decade of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach; that sober, serious, socially-conscious hell that movie-goers watched from behind their Guardian newspapers. But in 1998 “swagger” re-entered the lexicon, and despite a few minor wobbles, “swagger” has remained – in the form of Guy Ritchie’s movie resume – ever since. His latest, RocknRolla, is pure swagger; a giddy, Technicolor two-fingers to his detractors, suffused with such love of self and London that it’s like a French-kiss from Kate Moss.
As usual, there’s a very complicated plot, and, as usual, it involves a band of geezers; invincible Russian he-men; sexy dames; a snarling crime boss and lots of camera tricks. Suffice to say: Tom Wilkinson plays a thug who wants to be Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. His lieutenant, Mark Strong, is a dead-ringer for Andy Garcia in The Godfather Part III, and both men want back a stolen painting, which has been stolen by Wilkinson’s son (Toby Kebbell), who acts like Pete Doherty. Into the mix Ritchie adds a trio of loveable rogues known as The Wild Bunch (Gerard Butler, Idris Elba and Tom Hardy) and a Russian mob boss (Karel Roden). What follows is a bit like Alfie if Alfie had been addicted to crack.
Ritchie is strongest when he’s having fun, and it seems, after two movies spent trying to shoehorn Madonna’s world into Ritchie-land, he’s ready to have fun again with RocknRolla. Where Revolver was like watching a teenager explain something deep to you (“duality… like, woah!”), RocknRolla plays like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had never ended. The movie is shameless in riffing on Ritchie’s past conceits; it doesn’t care that you’ve seen this all before… because you haven’t seen this with Gerard Butler and the guy who played Stringer Bell in The Wire! And this time one of the geezers is gay! And Tom Wilkinson wears a bald-cap! Somehow – although this should make you want to hit Ritchie – you want Lock, Stock back. Maybe Revolver had to be as bad as it was just to show you how good those Mockney gangster movies were, in comparison.
There are a clutch of great scenes, but I’d call the best a two-way split between sex and violence. The reduction of Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton’s coupling to a razor-edit series of oohs and ahs is priceless, but it’s easily matched by a robbery-gone-wrong in which the Russian guards of the loot simply Will Not Die. Gerard Butler shines in both these scenes as a hard man with a wicked sense of humour, and he makes you realise how much of his talents were squandered in 300, where he played a male stripper with a sword.
Thandie Newton, who is, quite clearly, living proof there is a God – is pretty good here as a bad girl who struts and grins and comes on all Eartha Kitt-y. She’s been the new Eartha Kitt ever since she arrived in Hollywood, except that no-one’s stepped forward to be her Orson Welles (I’m thinking of that great Orson anecdote where he bit Kitt on the lip – while kissing her – because he “got excited”). Newton doesn’t have a great deal to do in RocknRolla, other than dance with Butler and get him in the sack, but her looks are active.
RocknRolla finds Guy Ritchie prepping for divorce (with any luck). He’s paid his dues on the Madonna production line, made one movie for her to act in and another to espouse her religious views. Now, you get the feeling, he’s fished his balls out of the jar Mrs. Ritchie put them in, put the kibosh on kabbalah and written his new script down at the local pub. The swagger that Britain (and Brad Pitt) loved in Lock, Stock is back, and it’s beautiful. RocknRolla is Britain as if Tony Scott ran the country and London was the setting for True Romance. It’s a robber’s movie, and it thrills you like cash.