It's a sad experience to watch "RocknRolla," the obituary for the Guy Ritchie brand of English gangster flicks. The spunky style of his early films has congealed into empty flash, the playfully circuitous plots have lapsed into mere commotion, the overstuffed casts seem desperate. "Hey, Mabel, look -- it's Jeremy Piven!" The effect of watching it is like having a splinter pushed into your eye.
It goes, bewilderingly, something like this. Tom Wilkinson is an old-school London gangster with a corrupt real estate commissioner in his pocket. Karel Roden is a Russian billionaire who needs the official's approval to build a housing development. Thandie Newton is the accountant who can slip millions in bribe money undetected between the two. Gerard Butler is the sexy thug she employs to rip off the couriers as she pursues her own duplicitous double game.
Filling out the roster are a junkie rock star who has faked his own death, a pair of music producers who might be able to locate him, indestructible Chechen hit men, various disposable henchmen and Mark Strong (the elegant Jordanian spy chief in "Body of Lies") as Wilkinson's slick wingman. Kiss kiss, bang, bang; let the gory frivolity begin.
Exactly what is on Ritchie's mind here is hard to say. The writer-director ladles on sensationalism like gravy, smothering routine crime-yarn stickups and double crosses with backlit photography, skull-splitting violence and trashy soundtrack pop. The film is bankrupt of substance -- the theme, such as it is, is that it would be fun to be a hoodlum. Ritchie isn't constructing a story so much as he is choreographing numbers, routines and musical passages based on a glam fantasy of gangsterism.
The prevailing mood is lighthearted sadism, shot through with a coy streak of gay-themed innuendo. I don't think there have been this many sensually filmed bare male torsos onscreen since Butler called his Spartans to battle in "300." A running joke involves Butler offering a special going-away gift to a handsome crony facing a five-year stretch behind bars.
Except for the feline, manipulative Newton, there are no interesting women in the film. Freud would have something insightful to say about these roughnecks and the long-barrelled pistols they point at each other, I'm sure. This odd film ends with the promise of a sequel, which promises to be the most inessential film of the decade, right after this one.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186