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(2008) ** 1/2 R
115 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Guy Ritchie. Cast: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Chris 'Ludacris'.

/content/films/3317/2.jpgThe laddish writer-director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) unapologetically sticks to one genre: the crime film. Unlike most directors, he doesn't seem to be pining away for the day he can make his own Schindler's List and then wait for the Oscars to roll in. Having come up at the same time as Tarantino and happily ridden his wave, Ritchie is content to stick to twisty, coincidence-driven plots and the gangsters--whether flash or trash--who inhabit them (exception: the remake Swept Away, with his now-ex-wife Madonna). And he's good at what he does, as far as it goes: his latest, RocknRolla, breaks no new ground for movies or for Ritchie, but it is an amusing diversion and therefore a return to form.

Like most of Ritchie's stories, RocknRolla is an ensemble piece, tangling a number of characters from the London underworld. At the top of this particular heap is Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a classless but business-like gangster with old-school moves. According to his lieutenant Archy (Mark Strong), "Lenny Cole has the keys to the back door of this booming city," but his position is threatened by the rise of Russian mobsters taking orders from the no-nonsense Uri Omovich (Karel Roden). Then there's the small-time outfit known as "The Wild Bunch" (hey, I saw that movie!): between smash-and-grab robberies, partners One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (the great Idris Elba) hang out at the local pub with the other druggies, tramps and thieves, including "Handsome Bob" (Tom Hardy). Bob has two reasons to be nervous: he's about to be put away for a stretch, and he has a secret that One Two wouldn't take kindly to hearing.

Entwined with both the "have" and "have-not" crime classes is "the very gifted and the financially creative" personal accountant Stella (Thandie Newton), who lives in a marriage of (in)convenience to a homosexual lawyer. And junkies abound, first among them Lenny's stepson, troubled rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). The rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated by Johnny himself, who wants out of his personal hamster wheel and knows that, when it comes to record sales, he's better off dead anyway. Johnny's plan complicates life for two of his handlers--Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Chris Bridges)--who must contend with those who want to find Johnny. Ritchie's gift for narrative trickery keeps RocknRolla humming along.

Bits of it feel like warmed-over Tarantino, up to and including a denouement promising, James Bond-style, a sequel (it's anyone's guess how firmly Ritchie's tongue is in his cheek). Ritchie is, of course, also copying himself, but there's some degree of freshness this time in his upstairs, downstairs approach to London's criminal classes. Though phony, the vivid characters provide ample opportunity for scenery chewing. Wilkinson has the most fun: as he's lying, Lenny insists, "It's all about the details," and when he later spits at his son, "What are you, boy, if you are not poison?", matters suddenly seem Shakespearean. A speech about the duality of superficial surfaces and their flip side--the ugly truth--almost sounds like an authorial confession of Ritchie's "too cool for school" school of crime cinema, but RocknRolla is just spirited enough to justify its existence.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 1/27/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner's Blu-ray of RocknRolla features an A/V transfer that accurately recreates the theatrical experience. It's part of the film's design (achieved with HD cameras and a lot of low-lit interiors) to look a bit murky, so this may not be the film to show off the crispness of Blu-ray, but the picture quality is a rock-solid representation of Guy Ritchie's intent. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound gives lossless love to the typical Ritchie mélange of rock'n'roll and nasty crime: the surround effects are limited, but the mix still comes through with the clarity we need to absorb the accented dialogue.

The special edition kicks off with a commentary by director Guy Ritchie and actor Mark Strong. Neither is the most scintillating personality you'll ever hear on a commentary track, but I found it refreshing to hear from a strong actor (no pun intended) that isn't a celebrity; we get a bit of Strong's personality and insight into craft along with Ritchie's run of details about the shoot.

"Blokes, Birds and Backhanders: Inside RocknRolla" (15:03, HD) is a competent mix of behind-the-scenes footage and comments from Ritchie, Strong, Gerard Butler, Jeremy Piven, Idris Elba, Chris Bridges, Thandie Newton, Tom Wilkinson, Toby Kebbell, and Tom Hardy.

There's a bit of overlap with the previous featurette, but "Guy's Town" (8:32, HD) puts a distinct focus on the London locations, their historical importance, and their thematic use. Ritchie, Strong, Newton, Wilkinson, Butler, producer Steve Clark-Hall, cinematographer David Higgs, location manager Claire Tovey, and production designer Richard Bridgland participate.

Last up is "Deleted Scene: Will You Put the Cigarette Out?" (2:00, SD), an interesting trim that usefully and amusingly sets expectations about the relationships between One Two, Mumbles, and Handsome Bob.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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