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Guy Ritchie's Rocknrolla: “The human condition is uniform”

“The human condition is uniform”

Guy Ritchie, Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton on what makes Rocknrolla sing

In Guy Ritchie’s London, when you follow the money, you usually get somewhere good. When Ritchie first came on the scene in the late ’90s with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, death came in the form of Jason Statham as a character named Bacon. In the early 2000s, the Snatch action took place in an underworld London of petty crime and grotty boxing rings, where Hassidic diamond dealers were no more or less ridiculously stereotyped than low-life Russian gangsters with violence in their hearts. For the most part, Ritchie has been the most laddish of London auteurs, and has rarely strayed outside his own personal brand of comedy/crime/thriller/gunplay-choreography – and the less said about Swept Away, his collaboration with wife Madonna, the better.

So what makes Rocknrolla, Ritchie’s first caper movie in 10 years, so compulsively watchable? To start with, the sightlines in London have changed. The East End curry shacks and sketchy street corners that buzzed below the skyline of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the British Museum have transmogrified into an array of bold (some would say obnoxious) architectural statements befitting a world-class city riding the crest of the future: The London Eye, a sort of overpriced Ferris wheel for grownups operated by British Airways, towers over the magnificent Tate Modern, while a phallic skyscraper nicknamed "The Gherkin" sprouts up from London City centre. East End neighbourhoods like Whitechapel and Bethnal Green (where parts of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels were shot) are now choking on the sawdust of planned construction for the 2012 Olympics.

"I suppose I was waiting to derive enough nutrition to make a story that was worth telling," says Ritchie about his 10-year hiatus during a Toronto Film Festival interview. "Also, London has changed so much over the last few years that it’s kind of not recognizable from the London of my previous movies, and to a degree London is the star of this movie. It’s become the new Wild West and the new New York; it’s got so much international interest in it now, so much international money, that it’s pertinent and the time is right to make that kind of story."

It’s true: In Rocknrolla, as in reality, Ritchie’s London underground criminal element has crawled into the light, surfaced and thrived. Rather than diamonds, boxing or cheating at cards, the shady business that’s making the world go round has Rocknrolla singing as well: real estate.

"I think where there’s money involved, there’s crime involved," says Ritchie. "The human condition is uniform."

Condo content

As in any Ritchie film, the action is played out by gangs of lads. The great Tom Wilkinson is Lenny Cole, a major wheeler-dealer in London lands who greases the palms of everyone he meets. Lenny avails himself of small-time hood help/hindrance in the form of the Wild Bunch, a ragtag gang consisting of Scottish hood One Two (Gerard Butler), his sidekick Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), a rakish bloke who’s got it bad for One Two. Lenny double-crosses the Bunch to do business with Uri (Karel Roden), a ruthless Russian real-estate mogul, while being dogged by anxieties about his wayward son, a charismatic rock star turned less-charismatic crackhead named Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell, from Control, who is destined for super movie stardom).

Johnny Quid, it turns out, is the titular rock’n'rolla. But it’s icy-cool Stella (Thandie Newton), the sexiest accountant you’ll ever meet, who is the prime mover of all the hairpin plot twists and movie momentum Ritchie musters.

These aren’t spoilers, mind you, but rather a rundown of what happens in the first 20 minutes or so of Ritchie’s opus – a dense-as-pudding plot that floats the action as Ritchie’s characters skid, clatter and stumble through the boneyards, alleys and grand boulevards of this brave new London.

Butler, who since 300 has been offered plenty of lucrative leading roles, admits part of the appeal was a chance to be himself in Ritchie’s multicultural mosaic.

"I wanted to try a London accent, but it’s probably just as well as I didn’t," says Butler. "It might have been quite laughable. Guy said, no, I want you to do Scottish accent, because I like the idea, especially with the Wild Bunch, of Lenny [Tom Wilkinson, the "real Londoner"] seeing us as immigrants, not just the new kids on the block, crime-wise, but also from somewhere else, so we don’t even deserve a chance in that world. When Guy said, ‘I want you to use your accent,’ it was a nice break for me as I’ve been doing way too much American and crappy Irish accents lately, so it was nice to just be myself in that respect."

"The thing I found slightly challenging was that there was an air of spontaneity on the set in that Guy liked us to come up with new, fresh ideas," says Newton. "And I found I just wanted to swear all the time, because it’s a Guy Ritchie film, so even though I was speaking in a clipped British accent, ‘fuck’ would slip out all the time, and Guy would have to say, ‘Thandie, no swearing for you. You’re not allowed to swear.’ And it was a good thing, because you have to feel pretty loose to swear, and Stella is not [loose]."

"There was one scene between Idris and I, and I watched it after and noticed that I said ‘fuck’ in every single possible way," adds Butler. "I’m like ‘Fuck! What? What the fuck? What! Fuck! Fuck this!’ I learned a few new acting lessons in that one."

Stellar Stella

Thandie Newton is having a good year. The British-Zimbabwean actress, who first came on the scene in John Duigan’s coming-of-age drama Flirting alongside Nicole Kidman in 1991, has starred in Mission: Impossible II and Paul Haggis’s Crash and hasn’t been reduced to an action-movie moll. Her sexy-uptight thing works wonders for the number-crunching, stiletto-wearing Stella. She also did something good for the recent W., Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush movie, in which she plays Condoleezza Rice to a T.

"If she’s a classic femme fatale, it’s with a twist," says Newton. "I think with Guy’s stuff there is always with a twist. It’s not classic – at least, I hope not. It’s unusual for a female character to be the baddie, but essentially, I’m the one who’s pulling puppet strings on all these other people."

How is it that Guy Ritchie gets away with subverting such stereotypes while also capitalizing on their basest entertainment value?

"Because he’s having fun, that’s how he gets away with it," says Newton. "It’s entertaining, it’s fun, it’s confident, it’s believable, and that’s life, I think we recognize the chaos and [singularity] much more than if he was just sticking with stereotypes. It’s so much more engaging… I definitely think we lust after… the chance to be able to use our brain and not hang [it] up with our coats at the door."

Snakes and lads

Ritchie is in the strange position of being a director both dismissed and celebrated for the ways that he’s tweaked, and even reinvented, his genre. In Rocknrolla, he manages to have a slight, sexy, mixed-race accountant who’s in charge of everything and a flint-edged gangster with a helpless attachment to his tweaky son who is also a musical prodigy. In the hoodlum gang, there’s a handsome, well-groomed but totally incompetent leader named One Two, his eloquent sidekick named Mumbles, and Handsome Bob, the darling of the lot, who turns out to be as gay as a Broadway musical, and even has a tryst with his brother-in-arms, played by Butler’s manly man. And here’s the thing – nobody minds. Is this Ritchie trying to work through his alleged homophobia, or is he bored with the laddishness of his own milieu?

"In terms of cinema, we’ve seen 70 years of gangster movies," ventures Butler, "where you have these stereotypes, and normally they’re pretty [conventional]. You’re a gangster, you’re hard, you’re tough. And normally you’re pretty foolproof, you know what you’re doing and you get it right. So what’s funny is to delve into that world and oh, maybe they don’t get it right, maybe they’re insecure, maybe they forgot their keys… it’s the silly ridiculous things you don’t think about that actually makes it more human."

"Despite all that potential violence, you see our enemies are made to cringe with what’s going to happen, but [Guy] also draws out friendships well. You feel like we’re still the best of buddies. Especially with what goes on with Handsome Bob, at the end of the day he’s still accepted, and he’s still our blood."

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  • by Cheryl Ramnanan - October 25, 2008, 12:30 pm

    One of the most important elements in a good movie is how it entices an audience to act and react to an idea. In Guy Ritchie’s case “everyone wants to be accepted” seems to have the right ingredients: everyday life as seen by everyday people accountants, gangsters, homosexuals, thieves, moguls, crackheads whom have one thing in common – to be accepted for who they are and he uses crime as the common thread to bring about this “kinship”feeling. As the audience may not necessarily empathize with the characters choices but will care to see how this story will unfold.

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