Guy Ritchie would surprise us if he surprised us. RocknRolla, his latest mockney crime caper, is exactly what you expect it to be, if you saw his Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Hell, it’s exactly what you want it to be, if you loved those films for their exuberant cartoon aggression and winking, wicked wit. After all, no one complains when one Bugs Bunny cartoon is pretty much the same as the one before. No one minds when the Road Runner shows up the Coyote once again. You’d be disappointed, in fact, if you didn’t get what you paid for.
Speaking of cartoons: Gerard Butler’s (P.S. I Love You, 300) One Two — that’s his name, though presumably not the one his mother gave him — is kinda the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote wrapped up into one delicious-looking if agreeably dumb package. He and his sidekick Mumbles (Idris Elba: American Gangster, 28 Weeks Later) — also probably not his baptismal moniker — probably aren’t actually the stupidest criminals working London’s shadier side, but they ain’t the brightest, either, and one of their robberies-gone-wrong devolves into the stuff of a seven-minute looney toon. The badder-bad guys — for of course we are meant to cheer on One Two in his felonious adventures, and we do, cuz he’s really not such a bad guy — give chase after One Two heists some cash, and the chase turns around so many times, the upper hand constantly shifting, that you can barely keep up, you’re laughing so hard. It’s one of the high points in a flick that is endlessly amusing. (I’d call it all a parody of cinematic male aggression, except I think it’s a parody of a parody of cinematic male aggression: One Two deals with one situation with a fellow criminal in a way that shows he’s a lot more enlightened than you’d expect from an agreeably dumb lowlife.)
RocknRolla is also way less brutal a movie than we’ve come to expect from Ritchie, a “lack” from whence springs much of the rest of the flick’s humor. Which isn’t to say that there’s none of the ol’ ultraviolence here, for there is — don’t take your grandmother with you to see this one. But you might call this a crime comedy of manners, what with all the criminals you can barely distinguish from legitimate businessmen, like old-school boss Lenny (Tom Wilkinson [Recount, Michael Clayton], who’s never been so funny) and Russian newcomer to the London scene Uri (Karel Roden [Running Scared, The Bourne Supremacy], dryly amusing). They’re cooking up a real-estate deal that’s just this side of shady… which is part of the joke, too, and one that’s even funnier — if far more bitter — now that the real-world just-this-side-of-shady real estate market has collapsed. Lenny, in one moment, is offended to be thought a gangster, and in his world, where it’s all “keep the receipts” for the accountant (played by Thandie Newton [Run, Fat Boy, Run, The Pursuit of Happyness] — she’s crooked too), and in which thugs who enjoy costume dramas make a ready living scoring hot tickets to West End musicals, well, maybe Lenny’s right to be offended. Being a villain ain’t what it used to be: now, it’s a respectable living.
That’s a joke: that’s part of Ritchie’s big joke, which is that tough guys are smart enough to handle the absurdly circular plot — all missed connections and unexpected liaisons — we can barely keep up with (and are pleased to be trusted with the disentanglement of), and it’s considered “unkind” to insult the muscle. Sure, the gentility of the golf course turns into a venue for teaching a vicious lesson to a rival, but that’s what happens when the bad guys start wearing sharp suits and expect to be able to conduct their business in the open light of day, and we let them. It’s our world — Ritchie’s just playing in it.