Just as Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and its sequels seem distinctly American, reflecting the glitz and ersatz class of Las Vegas, so Guy Ritchie's crime capers feel distinctly British. His latest, RocknRolla, set in the greasy streets and smoky pubs of London, lacks the glamor of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but it compensates with plenty of rough humor, bruising action and a wicked dark streak.
Gerard Butler, of 300, trades his Shakespearean eloquence for blokish slang as One Two, a small-time crook angling for a piece of the real estate racket. When he's snowed out of his down payment by underworld overlord Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), he sets out to rob a visiting Russian billionaire, Uri Omovich (Karel Roden). As it happens, Uri recently lent Lenny his "lucky painting" as a good-faith gesture toward a pending development deal. But the painting is quickly swiped by Lenny's stepson, Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a strung-out rock star who recently faked his own death.
But forget the plot, which is just a vehicle for various forms of mayhem (unstoppable Russian hit men), casual sex (involving Thandie Newton as a shady accountant) and tough-guy camaraderie. Jeremy Piven and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges make an amiable team as Johnny's clueless managers; Mark Strong, a dead ringer for a younger Robert De Niro, plays Lenny's unfazed strongman, Archie.
But it's newcomer Kebbell who steals the show as Quid, a sunken-eyed heroin addict with a vicious wit and some hilariously creative self-defense moves (watch that pencil). He's an action-hero Pete Doherty, a skinny rag doll packing a spring-loaded punch, who slowly emerges as the film's secret star.
RocknRolla marks a pulpy return to form for Ritchie, whose most recent genre effort, Revolver, was a misfire. The film ends with a promise of more to come, which means Ritchie may just have an Ocean's franchise of his own.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Toby Kebbell
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie
Rating: R; pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality
Running time: 114 min.