The plot is about some high-paid London lowlifes and a missing "lucky painting." But the real suspense surrounding Guy Ritchie's RockNRolla is this: Can the writer-director return to his early form and fame when his debut feature Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels made him the hot young bloke and emerge from the career burden of being Mr. Madonna? It's got to be time-consuming, and reputation-deflating, for a distinctive filmmaker to be dodging the paparazzi, shopping for a baby in Malawi and enduring gossip that your wife is palling around with A-Rod. Simply finding time to work while sharing a flat with a longtime pop star who's used to constant attention from her retinue has to be a delicate chore. (Not tonight, honey; I've got a script to finish.)
The good news about RockNRolla is that it more or less erases the tainted memories of Swept Away, the awful movie Ritchie made with Madonna, and the nearly incoherent Revolver, and marks Ritchie's return to the form of the 1998 Lock, Stock and its 2000 follow-up Snatch. The not-so-good news about his third excursion into the London underworld is that he's reusing the early films' milieu and style. It's an attractive template that allows for some vivid variations and lets good actors play it big and nasty, but there's no question that the form has become formula. The real question is: at what level? Let's say somewhere between the fast glamour of Formula One racing and the cosmetic cover-up of Grecian Formula 16.
Once again Ritchie needs a narrator to set the tone and occasionally explain the plot machinations to slower members of the audience. His name is Archie (incarnated with just the right mix of menace and mystery by go-to Brit character actor Mark Strong), and at the beginning he helpfully deciphers the movie's title: a higher, more voracious strain of London gangster. "We all like a bit of the good life: some the money, some the drugs, other the sex game, the glamour or the fame. But a rocknrolla, oh, he's different. Why? Because a real rocknrolla wants the f______ lot."
Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) runs a mob called the Wild Bunch; he looms over his lads with a vulture's hunched avidity, and his intimidating stare lasers right through his Ray-Bans. Lenny's been trying to close a real estate deal with one of the new kids on the block, a Russian tough named Uri (Karel Roden). But people keep stealing the multimillion-pound swag. The culprits happen to be a couple of Lenny's enforcers, One Two (Gerard Butler, of 300) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), working on tips One Two gets from Stella (Thandie Newton), a silky lawyer of no fixed ethical abode. Uri has also, as an earnest of fellowship, lent Lenny his "lucky painting"; this, of course, and much to Lenny's chagrin, gets nicked. The movie follows the trail of the missing artwork and throws in another intrigue for free: the search for an inside snitch, whose singing to the police has meant jail time for most of Lenny's underlings.