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January 27, 2009

DVD of the Week – Review of RocknRolla (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

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My DVD pick for the week is RocknRolla, the latest exercise in style by British writer-director Guy Ritchie (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). I didn’t much care for it, but it is accomplished and distinctive. Viewers who respond more sympathetically to Ritchie’s filmmaking should like it a lot.

The plot is a set of intersecting storylines where all the action is confined to a few days. Three follow members of London’s criminal classes: powerful local crime boss Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) and his top lieutenant Archie (Mark Strong); the “Wild Bunch” and their circle, a group of small-time toughs and chiselers led by One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba); and vile young drug addict Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) and his hanger-on of the moment. There are also some Russian interlopers, gangster Karl Roden (Uri) and his underlings. Stella (Thandie Newton) is Uri’s crooked accountant with aspirations to a glamorous life of high crime. Roman (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Mickey (Jeremy Piven) are non-crooked music producers unwillingly sucked into the maelstrom.

Uri is in town to put through a big real estate project, and the deal he brokers with Cole serves as the thread that loosely connects the stories. The deal, like everything else that happens in the film, is of no real importance; plot in RocknRolla exists to give the film’s stellar cast scenes to play. The characterizations are exaggerated and darkly comic. With these actors and a script that determinedly gives them all sharp dialogue and colorful character business, there aren’t many people who won’t find something to enjoy in the film. While I especially enjoyed Butler’s performance and Roman and Mickey’s storyline, all the principal cast members have justly garnered their share of critical praise, and singling out any one or few is largely a matter of personal taste.

RocknRolla may safely be viewed by the squeamish. There are frequent threats of violence and a fair amount of actual violence, but the latter happens almost entirely off-screen, its result registered in on-lookers’ expressions or the sufferer’s next-day, post-medical treatment condition. The film is rather more interested in class than violence, as collisions between the characters and storylines play out social and intra-criminal class conflict.

Class is one of the juggler’s balls, as is the conventions of the gangster genre, but ultimately RocknRolla is principally about itself. The film is a carefully constructed edifice of artifice built on direction, performance style, editing, and music. The sequence I liked best is the film’s second heist turned outmatched fight turned running for their lives chase. Although exceptionally successful in its entertainment value, it is of a piece with the rest of the film in narrative approach and visual style. Heist and aftermath are recounted in flashback as the film moves rapidly and seamlessly back and forth between present and past, the flashback splintering further to follow each of the robbers on his separate escape route. The sequence maintains a fine balance between thrills and (mocking) laughs; the dynamic editing rhythm generates excitement, while the visual presentation humorously undercuts the robbers’ pretensions to cool professionalism.

Other new releases this week: College, Fireproof, Lakeview Terrace, Pride and Glory, The Rocker

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