Cockney Cold War: Guy Ritchie, RocknRolla and Russian Movie Villains

Does the resurgence of Russian movie baddies signal another cultural cold war? Dave Moats reviews Guy Ritchie's epic return to form.

At first glance, Guy Ritchie’s latest film RocknRolla seems to be concocted from the same recipe as his previous film Snatch (pretending of course that Swept Away and Revolver never happened): take an ensemble cast of colourful characters; a missing sum of money that everyone’s looking for; an aging mobster who feeds his victims to animals, highly creative swearing, and some classic songs; mix together to form some semblance of a plot; lay on gratuitous slow-mo and sepia tints; and cook the shit out of it until you get a movie. RocknRolla makes for an enticing dish but this time however the ingredients simply aren’t as meaty.

Firstly, the sountrack is lacking in the usual esoteric gems, which is a shame because Ritchie’s soundtracks are normally second only to Tarantino’s. And when your films are cut like two hour long stylized music videos with pauses for dialogue, this becomes a real issue.

The characters are also far less memorable and less charmingly flawed. Vinnie Jones’ ‘Desert Eagle .50’ handgun had more personality than this crew. Gerard Butler plays the hapless protagonist with zero charisma save for the accent he lifted from Sean Connery. Idris Elba from The Wire plays his equally bland sidekick, Tom Wilkinson gives a believable but alienating performance as a mob boss and Mark Strong plays his right hand man / occasional narrator. These are all strictly speaking ‘better actors’ than the more hollywood Brad Pitt and Statham types but previous Ritchie characters were defined by their quirks and affectations whereas these are little more than the sum of their motivations. The potentially interesting characters like Tank and Cookie (Matt ‘superhans’ King) only appear in a couple of scenes to advance the bloated plot and are never heard from again. Thandie Newton is naturally magnetic but is not given enough space to develop her character since most of her screen time is spent smoking in super-slow motion which, admittedly, she is really good at.

The real star is Johnny (Toby Kebbell) who plays a hilarious and deranged junky punk-rock messiah. Despite being the titular RocknRolla, he remains little more than a plot device, but we are promised a greater role when he returns in — Return of the RocknRolla.

RocknRolla remains a perfectly enjoyable film but it doesn’t match the audacity of Snatch or shear brilliance of Lock, Stock…. On the plus side its not a step backward. We can see Ritchie grasping at larger ideas and stories beyond the scope of east-london, and straining himself a bit in the process. What has changed this time is not the director or the formula but the source material. London has become a very different place since the late 90s early 2000s. The seedy underworld of Lock, Stock… still exists but it is must now contend with a new class of ‘legitimate’ international criminal: the property investor. Its not drugs or gambling where the most money is changing hands, it is at the high end of the property ladder. Interestingly it is high-class Russian gangsters who muscle and bribe their way into Ritchie’s insular Mile End world.

So what is it with this recent spate of Russian movie villains? First there was Eastern Promises followed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? It seems that it’s finally O.K. for us to hate the Russians again. For the past 20 years, in the absence of the USSR, Hollywood has had to rely on international terrorists as baddies, True Lies being the most awkward example. But terrorists make bad villains because they are the rebels raging against the machine, and that makes us the machine. It’s a bit like remaking Star Wars from the perspective of the Death Star. Americans, and to a lesser extent the British love to root the underdog.

Luckily, Russia once again has a starring role on the world stage and thus make for good villain material. This has much to do with Putin’s generally ballsy and imperialistic behavior but the touchstone for Ritchie must have be the recent James Bond style assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London. It was not the act, but the sheer arrogance of the way that it was carried out on British soil that announced that the Cold War was back on.

Yet far more important to our culture today the than what goes on in the political arena is what transpires in the commercial one. The Russians are a threat to the West once again because of their tremendous, partially shady, economic growth. This explains why Russian’s have recently been depicted as criminals and ruthless businessmen instead of sophisticated spies as in Cold War episode 1.

The problem with the new trend in Russian villains is that they become just as much caricatures as they were the first time around. Ritchie’s movie is no exception. His Russians are cold and calculating and live by almost medieval codes of honour. The two crazy hit-men are stereotypically brutal and superhuman, and probably got their taste for tattoos and ass-rape in some Siberian prison. For what ever reason, Guy Ritchie has always had some personal connection to or source in the London underworld which has allowed him to depict it with loving attention. But the Russians are completely alien to him so they become sketches.

In Ritchie’s other movies there were no clear bad guys (they were all bad) but the Russians with their new money, sense of hierarchy and morality are the odd ones out. There seems to be a clear anti-immigration message, which is partly in jest but partly not. It funny to find our selves feeling nostalgic for a time when all our crime syndicates were homegrown British, and by British I mean Scottish, Irish, Jewish, Turkish, Polish, Afro-Carribean and of course "Pikey".

RocknRolla ends on a high note for the British gangster with Johnny accepting his role and taking charge of the family business – exactly like the godfather except instead of returning from the army he returns from rehab. The clumsy metaphor might go that Britain is the junky rock star lying dormant, feeding off his royalties and resting on past glory and if he simply kicked the habit and took a goddamn shower we wouldn’t have to settle for being the gangster middlemen of the 21st century. But then again, when have Guy Ritchie movies ever been about successful British criminals?

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