It’s ironic, in an unpleasant way, that Guy Ritchie keeps hammering on the theme of small-timers (gangsters, usually) trying to be bigger than they are. That — minus, perhaps, the gangster part — is Guy Ritchie in a nutshell. With Rocknrolla, his incoherent, inhuman follow-up to the Kabballah-influenced Revolver, he continues to twist and writhe, attempting to replicate the success of his violent and ultra-hip freshman and sophomore efforts. The new film is all posturing and artifice — not cool or funny, though sometimes scary in its nihilism and flippancy. As I said in my Revolver review, I never much liked Ritchie anyway. But surely now he’s sunk low enough that even admirers of his early films will turn tail.
Virtually every scene of Rocknrolla strains for tough-guy coolness — thoughtless, amoral violence accompanied by a wink and a wisecrack. Everyone wants to be a post-modern Tony Montana. But that sort of image is only impressive when it appears effortless; second nature to the filmmaker, the characters, and the world they inhabit. Here, you can basically see Ritchie wiping the sweat off his brow. A long scene features a character (Mark Strong) teaching others how to deliver a proper slap across the face. Thandie Newton, playing a sultry accountant walks across the screen, first in slow-motion and then practically running as the film speeds up — this is Ritchie’s idea of style. Someone gets stabbed dozens of times with a pencil. There’s crayfish torture. A sex scene that lasts literally five seconds. None of it matters, to Ritchie or to us. It’s a totally superficial attempt to be tough and hip, the equivalent of me putting on a black leather jacket. I wouldn’t be fooling anyone.
There’s sort of a plot, and you can mostly follow it. I won’t bother with a description. It’s an interchangeable gangster caper, involving bags full of money and a McGuffin in the form of a painting we never see. There’s a weird surprise ending, springing a twist that we can’t possibly care about since all it does — all it does — is make a villain approximately 0.5% more villainous. Again: Ritchie would (and does) sell his story down the river for an iota of street cred.
A wonderful cast wastes its time. Tom Wilkinson creates another strong, unique character, a rotten-to-the-core mafioso desperate to rise above his pay grade. Gerard Butler charms as what I guess we must consider the film’s hero. Other terrific actors abound: Thandie Newton, Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and so on. Watching them might have been fun, but the movie isn’t really into fun. It sucks the fun out of the performances by making everyone an asshole, a poseur, and/or a fool.
In the end, Rocknrolla is just damn unpleasant. You feel gross. It’s not just the violence (which actually isn’t too heavy); it’s the posturing, the leering, the arbitrary homophobia, the notion that it’s cool to wallow in the gutter. I hated this movie. I hope not to hear from Guy Ritchie for a while.