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Lenny considers himself less a thug than a commercial facilitator ("What d'you think we are? Gangsters?"), and Archie seconds that delusion. ("Keep your receipts," he tells one associate, "'cause this ain't the Mafia.") But the milieu is redolent of many a mob story, with the rocknrollas as goodfellas, and their hangouts as low-London franchises of the Ba-Da-Bing. The dialogue has an East End accent, but it's basically Tarantinian chatter the joking among ruthless men with roguish rhetoric and short fuses leavened for variety with the odd upmarket observation. "Beauty is a cruel mistress," Uri says of his painting, with a mixture of connoisseurship and threat. Some of the lines could almost be put to music, like "The streets are alive with the sound of pain."
Ritchie loves characters who provide conflict and, more important, congestion; his pictures are downright garish with local color. A few from this fresco: Tank (Nonso Anozie), an Anglo-Afro bruiser who's fond of Merchant-Ivory dramas; Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), a gang member who unexpectedly plights his homoerotic troth to the flummoxed One Two ("What exactly is it you want to do to me, Bob?"); and, best of the lot, Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a junk rocker who has faked his own death to sell more CDs. It's a star-making part for Kebbell, and he's a delight to watch, giving it the creepy swagger of American-style bravura acting. (Disappearing into the crowd are the two actual Americans imported to play Johnny's handlers, Chris (Ludacris) Bridges and Entourage's Jeremy Piven.)
Ritchie has a portraitist-satirist's gift for creating supporting characters that's almost in the league of Preston Sturges, the pinwheeling comic genius of 1940s Hollywood. Now if only he could duplicate Sturges' range of milieux, from high society (The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story) to chicanerous politics (The Great McGinty) to the working class in big cities (Christmas in July) and small towns (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero). If appreciation for RockNRolla's entertainment abundance is freighted with disappointment, it's partly because Ritchie's early work has been elaborated on in sharp Brit gangland capers like Layer Cake and The Bank Job. But the main problem is that Ritchie keeps playing the same old song. It's a swell tune, and we don't mind hearing it every few years, but we'd welcome another subject in a transposed key. Even the Material Girl tries out fresh material.
Ritchie must think he's onto something new, because the end of the movie hints at a sequel. But first the director has eyes on a remake, or an updating, of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with either Robert Downey Jr. or Russell Crowe as the drug-using supersleuth of 221B Baker Street. Count on Ritchie to find pungent thuggery in foggy London town and to juice up the plot with Victorian-age rocknrollas.