Dandy of the underworld

Special to The Times

Guy Ritchie’s aggressively stylized, testosterone-addled movies careen from one steroidal encounter to the next. But in “RocknRolla,” Ritchie dials down the pace, soaking up the atmosphere of sweat and stale beer around a revolving cast of low-level thugs and underworld operators. Ritchie whisks you along on a whirlwind tour, but he’s not averse to putting on the brakes long enough to admire some of his favorite attractions.

“RocknRolla’s” deliberately convoluted plot centers around the hunt for a painting that belongs to a Russian mobster (Karel Roden) who’s trying to muscle his way into London’s real estate boom with the help of old-school gangster Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). But the fugitive artwork is really just Ritchie’s excuse to stay on the move, shuttling between characters whose vigorous pursuit of their own interests keeps them constantly poised on the brink. There’s Mumbles (Idris Elba) and One Two (Gerard Butler), a pair of small-timers rushing to pay off a debt to Lenny before they start losing body parts, and Stella (Thandie Newton), a numbers whiz who sells them the location of the bank where the Russian is preparing to make a major withdrawal. There’s Archie (Mark Strong), Lenny’s fearsome enforcer, who reminds his thugs to keep their receipts, since “this ain’t the Mafia.”

The joker in the deck is Lenny’s estranged son, a punk rocker who goes by the name of Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). A scrawny drug addict who has faked his own death in an attempt to boost album sales, Johnny should be laying low but can’t resist turning up to throw a wrench into his father’s carefully laid plans.

Although “RocknRolla” is full of violent threats -- Lenny’s favorite involves dipping the uncooperative in a river full of hungry crayfish -- the movie’s body count is fairly low. Its most memorable confrontation is a shaggy-dog fight involving a pair of beefy Chechens whose resistance to injury puts them in a league with Wile E. Coyote.


Although it never strays into self-parody, “RocknRolla” occasionally pokes fun at its director’s fondness for macho chest-beating. The brawny fence with a clue to the painting’s whereabouts kicks back in his luxury SUV with a DVD of “The Remains of the Day,” suggesting that even gangsters like to relax with a nice period piece now and again. Set on the eve of World War II, in the waning days of the British empire, “Remains’ ” fleeting appearance subtly underlines “RocknRolla’s” references to Britain’s resurgent (at least until recently) economic power, and London’s bid to establish itself as the financial capital of the world.

Ritchie stages a scene involving a multimillion-pound deal with the city’s rapidly expanding skyline in the background, centered on the cigar-shaped office tower (known locally as “the gherkin”) that has become the symbol of London’s prosperity.

Shooting on high-definition video, Ritchie strays far from the corridors of power, creeping into the dimly lit corners of back rooms and vacant warehouses. The world may be hurtling forward but Ritchie prefers just to hang around, killing time with the fellas until they turn on the lights.


“RocknRolla.” MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. At Pacific’s ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; ArcLight Sherman Oaks, 15301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-0753; the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8233.