Chicago Film Fest Dispatch: Surprised by ‘RocknRolla’

When the curtains rose on Chicago’s Surprise Event, the audience and our very own Josh Radde had RocknRolla thrust upon them.
By  · Published on October 28th, 2008

This past Monday I attended the Chicago International Film Festival’s “Surprise Event” at the illustrious and rustic Music Box Theatre downtown. The press release for the film did a number to ratchet expectations:

CHICAGO, October 23, 2008 – Yes, man, the 44th Chicago International Film Festival’s Surprise Film will transport the audience—perhaps to Australia, perhaps to the underworld—through one curious case of filmmaking. Film lovers, soul men, and role models are encouraged to pop a rocknrolla record in their Cadillacs and head to the Music Box Theatre, where the earth will stand still as the seven-pound curtain rises on a Surprise Film—and no one will know what they’re going to see until the credits roll… not Marley, not even me.

Everyone from watchmen to panthers, Argentine revolutionaries to Norse maidens should bolt to the theater for the big Surprise Film—sure to leave you shaken, not stirred. Bring a glass of milk because it’ll feel like many Christmases all at once. I love you, man, but leave the kiddies at home.

So, basically every film being released the remainder of this year was in play. I thought it was going to be Quantum of Solace for two main reasons: 1. It was rumored to be in the festival lineup earlier this month and; 2. Director Marc Forster’s last two films (2006’s Stranger Than Fiction and 2007’s The Kite Runner) opened CIFF. So I told my buddy, bought a ticket for my girlfriend and myself, and settled in for some Daniel Craig intensity. Lights went down, a hush of anticipation swelled over the crowd, and Guy Ritchie’s RockNRolla came up. My girlfriend’s reaction summed it up best: “Ahhhhhh, f*ck.”

I’m conflicted about my thoughts for RockNRolla. In fact, this movie has inspired me to rethink how I review movies. I don’t think it would be enough to call this movie a “C-” and be done with it. No, there will be people who LOVE this movie. There will also be people who will have hated that they didn’t wait for this on DVD so that they could smoke a bowl in the privacy of their homes and possibly enjoy it. So, FSR Readers, from here-on-in I’ll be giving 4 grades to each film. That way, I give you my opinion and leave it up to you to judge what aspects you find important.

There’s a plot somewhere in here. And I’m sure if you sat Guy Ritchie down and asked him to explain it to you, he could do so in his indecipherable accent. I know it’s a movie about a painting (a “classic” MacGuffin) being passed around place to place, person to person, and coming in-and-out of each main character’s life. There’s also the relationship between three low-level mobsters (Gerard Butler, Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy), a high-level mobster (Tom Wilkinson) and his right-hand man (Mark Strong), and an accountant (Thandie Newton) who circulates around. The “RocknRolla” in the story is Johnny Quid, played by Toby Kebbell, who steals the painting early on. His managers Roman (Ludacris) and Mickey (Jeremy Piven) get dragged into the intricate goings-on as well. As the film goes on, the plot gets even more diluted, and Ritchie’s inability to use his razor-sharp editing to tell a story falls by the wayside. Sometimes Ritchie can be too clever for his own good, and his ability to tell a story suffers. Some cynics like myself may say he graduated from the Baz Luhrmann School of Plottery. D-

Many of the actors seem to be having a lot of fun with this film. It’s a pretty light story, very Snatch-ish. Gerard Butler is good and his chemistry with his two co-horts is played for some quality laughs. Tom Hardy is a blast as the homosexual gangster Handsome Bob (I dock Ritchie creativity points for naming his character “Handsome Bob” forgetting that his boy Jason Statham played “Handsome Rob” in 2003’s The Italian Job). Mark Strong gives a very solid performance as Archie, the calculated mobster who runs the show with a steady hand. He’s at once funny and intimidating, sarcastic and also dead serious. Thandie Newton gives a slightly less embarrassing performance than she gave in W. but her character’s story is dropped completely before the end of the film, so ultimately there’s no reason for us to care. Tom Wilkinson, normally a very dynamic actor, has a very hard time acting his way out of his horrendous bald cap. Toby Kebbell is infinitely watchable as the drugged-out and amped-up rockstar and even has the best monologue in a monologue-heavy movie, spoken over a softly-played piano. B-

This is one of those movies that some people will like because it has a lot of “cool” quotable lines. Archie barks “keep your receipts, ‘cuz this ain’t the mafia” at one point and has a good monologue about the effectiveness of slapping someone you’re interrogating. Butler’s “One-Two” character has a lot of sly delivery. Wilkinson gets to bark a lot of funny threats. Too many times the characters insist they’re not gangsters yet spout the most cliche gangster dialogue out there, though. Again, this is a clear indication that Ritchie loves how creative he thinks he is. C

Technical Proficiency:
I will give Ritchie and his Director of Photography David Higgs a lot of credit for some very notable moves. A dance sequence between Butler and Newton is both neurotic and captivating with the way it’s shot with wide-angle lens. Conversely, a chase sequence between Butler and a pair of heavies is one of the more intricate and fun foot chases I’ve seen in some time. The shaky-cam look provides a sense of danger and heightened adrenaline to an otherwise anti-climactic action sequence. The editing and musical score are both penetrating and over-the-top, and sometimes the use of voice-overs only serves to confuse us as to whose telling which aspect of the story. B

So there you have it. I won’t average these grades out, because that wouldn’t really tell you what I thought about the movie. For me, a clear and engaging story is more important than editing and cinematography, so my grade would be closer to a “D” rather than a “B” -but for you, maybe solid performances and a keen eye for detail are what you root your enthusiasm around. Take from this review what you feel is important and judge accordingly, because I can’t really “recommend” this movie, nor can I disregard it.

Editor’s Note: For those wanting the scores to be averaged, it would be ((D-)+(B-)+(C)+(B)) / 4.