Guy Ritchie hasn't made a good film since… wait, has Guy Ritchie ever made a good film? Ritchie's debut feature Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels was an entertaining-enough post-modern gangster picture, albeit too full of itself, and Snatch had its moments, though they were obscured by meaningless flash. But perhaps Ritchie has improved over the past 10 years—or perhaps any movie would look good after the execrable Swept Away and Revolver—because Ritchie's latest gangland comedy RocknRolla is far and away his best work. (Though that's a designation that some might call "faint praise.")
RocknRolla starts strong, introducing Tom Wilkinson as a shrewd criminal mastermind who thrives by pitting his minions against each other. One of those minions is Gerard Butler, an enterprising thief and hitman who's forced by Wilkinson's stinginess to come up with his own jobs, and inadvertently ends up working at cross-purposes from his boss. In particular, Wilkinson and Butler each spend RocknRolla's two hours seizing and losing possession of a Russian mob boss' prized painting, which at various points ends up in the hands of cunning socialite Thandie Newton (doing what may be a fairly vicious caricature of Madonna) and Wilkinson' drug-addicted rock star son Toby Kebbel.
As usual, Ritchie is preoccupied with the various strata of colorful underworld denizens, but this time there's an element of social criticism in his vision of a world where the leaders proceed out of a combination of ignorance and arrogance, and wind up spiting themselves. But as is the norm for Ritchie, Rocknrolla is also too long, too coolly violent, and too populated by characters who all talk like they've been reading the same pulp novelist. The movie contains a few exciting, visceral sequences (set to pounding rock 'n' roll, naturally), and a gripping performance by Kebbel, who may be the best young character actor currently working in the UK. But the "whatever happened to the old school?"/"honor among thieves" themes have been pretty well wrung dry, and Ritchie doesn't really add any new juice. He mainly sticks with what he knows how to do best: showing what happens when clever rogues scramble for the crumbs left behind after their masters feed each other.