Guy Ritchie makes movies that zoom. The gangland Britspeak is pumped up, profane. The action flashes forward, then roars into reverse. All parties concerned appear to be having a gas - even as bullets fly, bad guys (and good) are beaten to a pulp, and suckers get taken for every cent.
The problem with Ritchie - recently exed from a certain one-named pop diva - is that he keeps making the same movie. Like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie's RocknRolla is set in the London underworld. (We'll forget about his egregious Swept Away remake, starring You-Know-Who. And as for Ritchie's madcap, metaphysical gambling pic, Revolver, well, he was kind of trying something different there. Kind of.)
But in RocknRolla, warring crime lords, loyal (and disloyal) foot soldiers, frosty femmes, and wacko hangers-on once again go double-crossing around town. In the film's favor, Tom Wilkinson is one of said crime lords: He's Lenny Cole, an old-style mobster who's made millions on crooked real estate deals. Wilkinson must have had a Michael Caine mini-fest before he shaved his head and suited up for the role; the actor, who played the tragically bonkers lawyer in Michael Clayton, lays on the Cockney yakety-yak like there's no tomorrow.
And there might not be, for Cole: A Russian billionaire by the name of Uri Obamavich (Karel Roden) is muscling in on Cole's turf, wanting a big chunk of London's booming property market. Uri's not to be trusted, but Cole goes in with him anyway, and there's some business about a favorite painting being loaned as a sign of good faith.
Then, the painting goes missing. Very awkward for Cole, indeed.
Gerard Butler, Mr. 300, is Ritchie's main man here. His name is One Two, and he's a mid-tier thug with his own dreams of cashing in on the real estate explosion. One Two's not the brightest bulb, but he's bright enough to know his limits, and along with partners Mumbles (Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell of The Wire) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), One Two goes in on a bit of speculation, courtesy of a loan from Cole.
And then there's the not-by-the-numbers mob accountant, Stella (a sleek, glamorous Thandie Newton), and the nutball, drug-addicted rocker in hiding, Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). RocknRolla begins with a comic-booklike credit sequence and is rife with playfully kinetic camerawork and editing. Butler and Newton have a couple of game, sexually charged exchanges. Without a doubt, the film's finest moment is an epic chase sequence beginning with a heist and crashing vehicles, and ending in a foot race over a vast swath of London neighborhoods.
If only RocknRolla's characters were at all believable - even in the context of its own cartoon universe. But hardboiled histrionics (from Wilkinson) and macho unflappability (Butler) aren't enough to compensate for the complete cursoriness of the colorful, foul-mouthed mob types that inhabit - yet again - Ritchie's world.
RocknRolla **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Guy Ritchie. With Gerard Butler, Toby Kebbell, Jeremy Piven, Thandie Newton, Karel Roden and Tom Wilkinson. Distributed by Warner Bros. Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.