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September 9, 2008

I didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s last two movies, Swept Away and Revolver, and have often given silent thanks for that, despite or because of the fact that I’ve enjoyed the resultant giggles those two efforts have generated since their release.

In addition, I actively despised gangland ‘classic’ Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which I’m aware is a viewpoint that flies in the face of public opinion, but hey…there it is. But, I thought I should see how Mr Ciccone has developed as a film-maker in the last decade, and hey-ho if the posters don’t inform us this latest is ‘back to the form of Lock, Stock‘. Ohh, goody.

And another gangland setting. Grrrrreat, Now, for me, there are only two British gangster movies you need in your collection, Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, everything else is just a knock-off copy, and can be safely ignored. And just because both of these are well over a quarter of a century old (and their nearest rival, Brighton Rock, is considerably more ancient again) doesn’t mean they can’t still clip the young pretenders squarely round the ear with aplomb and send them packing.

The Long Good Friday, in particular, is a genuine masterpiece. I mean that, too. Up there with not just the best crime films, but the best films full-stop. This has plenty to do with Bob Hoskins’s portrayal of monstrous crime boss Harold Shand, a man trying to make a semi-legitimate name for himself with some shady US businessmen, grabbing hold of Thatcher’s coat tails as he spies the opportunity to partake in some serious investment in a still bomb-sited London (1980s dockland and East End locations looking totally alien from the chrome and steel landscapes of today). Hoskins is all pugnacious charm and ugly pumped-up Napolean-style energy. Roger Ebert said that he’d “rarely seen a movie character so completely alive”, and it’s very hard to disagree. In a terrific speech, as he schmoozes with his “colonial cousins” on his luxury yacht down the Thames, the great iconography of the capital drifting slowly by, Hoskins embraces the political zeitgeist of that time and espouses Thatcherism as if it were God’s holy law. But as well as catching the wave, it pulls off the extraordinary trick of being a timeless moment. Beneath Harold’s grabbing oily charm there’s an animal snarling away, happy to employ brutality when necessary and with a sheer almost tangible believability sewn into the fabric of the part, what you have is a performance that’s not so much about a part in a story, but a study in the worst aspects of the human condition. It’s terrifying.

It was with gathering horror, then, that as I watched Ritchie’s latest film, the appallingly-titled RocknRolla, I realised we were watched a remake of that earlier proper Classic (no speech marks, upper case, full-on respect) piece of cinema.

RocknRolla (I wince every time I think of that) begins with a couple of estate agent johnnies detailing the wisdom of moving into property in London. Talking directly to camera in a right-from-the-off self conscious stab at stylistic flare, they then fade to grey while a voice-over from main character Archie (Mark Strong, effortlessly nabbing The Best Thing In It award) explains the deal, introduces the characters, espouses a bit of psuedo-gangster blather, throws in a splash of geezer charm, and generally explains where the battle lines are drawn. It’s a convoluted little farce, but essentially it boils down to naughty Russian billionaires using gangland Kingpin, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), to grease a few palms and secure a few planning permissions care of his corrupt Council chums. And, then, care of a few wildcard ragamuffins queering the pitch, the whole thing goes pear-shaped.

Just like The Long Good Friday, then. Scarily, both movies are 114 minutes long, but apart from that and the general premise, a world separates them.

Ritchie’s film is very flashy, and I don’t think that anyone (me, for instance) who’s only seen Lock, Stock, would have expected anything different. It’s got that washed-out beige-y look, too, not to mention the slo-mo, the fast-mo, the on-screen subtitles flashed up around characters when you can’t hear them because of music, the nicknames, the extended intros for new characters, the cheeky outros when they’re offed, the di-duuum-di-dum guitar riffs to signal humour, the…oh, you know. You know what I’m talking about. As an exercise in moviemaking it has not moved on one iota from all the gimmickry of the man’s feature length debut. But there are two very important things that set it apart.

Firstly, despite the all the flash, the sound, the fury and the cranked up visuals trying to inject some level of energy into it, RocknRolla (ugh), and there’s no getting away from this, is actually very very boring. It’s deadly dull. Thandie Newton, the cold-hearted rumpy interest seems to have clocked on to this and looks fairly set to fall asleep at any given point. Narcolepsy is not the friend of the action movie, and so when we do have scenes that are expected to quicken the pulse the music is made TO SOUND VERY LOUD INDEED, like they do in the advert breaks for loan consolidation, injury lawyers and food you buy in buckets.

Second, Mark Strong aside, you neither believe nor give a rat’s ass about a single one of these people. I didn’t care if the cheeky Scottish bloke got wiped out (actually I would’ve encouraged it) or if the rockstar, er, star Johnny Quid was stamped on by the heavies (again, please, yeah, the guy was as irritating as your first haemorrhoid). These aren’t people, they’re ciphers, comic book shallow scratchings of nothingness placed up there on the screen to utter jokey one-liners and make some adolescent point about something or other.

The Long Good Friday isn’t an action movie, but it grips vice-like throughout its running time. What’s more, you believe in everyone, even the bloke who now plays Charlie Fairhead in Casualty (honest). RocknRolla is fluff, and poorly executed fluff at that. I don’t care if the language these absurd people speak is the genuine lingua franca of the London underworld, and I’m not qualified to say so anyway, but more importantly, I don’t care. I just didn’t give a shit about anyone in this bloody mess, and as one minute stretched with tedious, charmless torpor into the next I actually considered wandering off before the end, and I never do that.

Worryingly, as the final frame freezes and the odious Johnny Quid is caught in mid-spark-up, the bombastic soundtrack heralds the frightening legend that “Johnny and Archie and the others will all be back in The Real RocknRolla“.



Anyone who’s seen Friday will know exactly how that ends, of course, and how the worry isn’t for your own future rubbish evenings spent in the company of puffed-up cinematic egoists peddling second rate crap, but for this bizarre puffed-up creature there on the screen; a man who has conflicted you, and made you think and cheer and shake and want to hide. As the film’s final shot begins, an extraordinary close-up, held for what seems like forever, of Shand’s tormented features, his eyes shifting, his mouth grimacing, you realise that this is an amazing piece of work, a Truly Great Film.

The only thing I thought at the end of Guy Ritchie’s movie was why did I bother. No surprises which DVD I put on the telly when I got back…

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