RocknRolla: it’s a self-parody, innit geez?

Critics have watched Guy Ritchie’s latest gangster movie and asked: ‘Is he taking the piss?’ Er, yes, he is.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Welcome to London, the ‘financial and cultural capital of the world’, announces Archie, the laconic narrator of Guy Ritchie’s latest Reggie and Ronnie ripoff, RocknRolla. Unfortunately for Ritchie, Archie’s opening paean to England’s capital is nearly as dated as the Kray mythology itself, especially the assertion that ‘property prices are going up and up’.

Oh how the critics have mocked! ‘Doesn’t Mr Madonna realise it’s not 1997 anymore?’ they crow. London’s not booming; ‘the lad’ is now ‘chav’; and Cool Britannia’s septum has long since collapsed. Yet here he is once again swinging the same old mockney bollocks in the public’s face. Geeza patois, throwaway violence, and a double-crossing, quick-edit farce of a plot… As the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw concluded: ‘You’re taking the piss – intcha?’

Well perhaps he is. If RocknRolla is any indication, not only is Ritchie all too aware that his stock-in-trade gangster romps are ripe for parody, he’s also fully cognisant, as his wife’s skeletal remains remind him daily, that it’s no longer 1997.

The plot itself is a concession to changing times. Starting off on familiar enough ground, we are introduced to Lenny Cole who, we are told, runs London. A rent-a-Kray sadist, Cole is a gangster of the old school, and a racist of the new. ‘Immigrants!’ he frequently blurts in anger. His life is one of moneyed influence. A backhander there, an interest-heavy loan here, there are few pies, legal or otherwise, into which he hasn’t wedged his finger.

Such figures are Ritchie archetypes, all cockneyed mouth and tailored trousers. However, there’s a new boss in town in the form of a yacht-owning, watery-smiled Russian called Uri Obomavich. Right down to the jumper casually knotted over his shoulders, the detail is perfect: all he lacks is an ‘I’m Roman Abramovich’ sticker. Such is this new breed’s wealth and power, he makes Lenny, as Archie insensitively remarks, look small-time.

Perhaps fearful of pushing the allusion too far, Ritchie’s Abramovich clone doesn’t want to buy a mid-table football club – he wants to build a mammoth commercial complex on the Thames. And to do so, he needs Lenny to grease the palms of London’s corrupt bureaucrats. This Lenny’ll do for ‘seven big ones’. What neither Lenny nor Uri realises, however, is that Uri’s beautiful accountant, the tellingly named Stella – what could be more desirable for the 1990s lad than the Belgian honey? – has organised for a gang known as The Wild Bunch to intercept Uri’s taxman-evading stash as it makes its way to Lenny.

There’s a further complication, however. The Wild Bunch, consisting in the main of three impossibly blokey blokes called Handsome Bob, Mumbles, and the nominal hero, One Two, need to carry out the robbery to pay back the two million they owe to… yep, Lenny Cole. Add to this a stolen painting, Lenny’s estranged ‘rocknrolla’ stepson Johnny Quid (a character made entirely from Pete Doherty anecdotes and stage-school twattery), and a couple of indestructible Chechen toughs with a predilection for martial sex games, and you’ve got a plot so deliberately and excessively convoluted that to complain that it’s too convoluted is like moaning that this sentence is too long. It’s meant to be.

If the form’s a parody of Ritchie’s penchant for over-egged farce, then the content opts for simple self-mockery. Take the accusation that there are no women in Ritchie’s films, that the laddish camaraderie derives from his alleged barely suppressed desire to touch other men. Down there. Well, in RocknRolla the homosexual steps out into the open the moment Handsome Bob confesses his love for One Two. Which One Two reluctantly, gingerly reciprocates.

More striking still is the treatment of the chief accusation levelled at Ritchie – that is, he’s a posh, Eton-educated toff romanticising a world to which, by virtue of his background, he has no right of access. Not that background that has stopped Mike Leigh. Or Charles Dickens. Or Honore Balzac. Or Chaucer. Or just about any other artist gazing beyond his navel. And nor should it.

In RocknRolla, Ritchie takes this nonsensical prejudice and drops its logic into the film itself. Hence in a flashback we see Lenny’s stepson Johnny being picked up from some grand-looking public school by his henchman in chief, Archie, complete with a gun tucked into his trousers. It’s as absurd an image as the demand that the artist must share the background of the characters he creates.

While Ritchie pokes fun at his own déclassé longing, he also deals with its opposite in the character of underworld fixer (Think-)Tank. Big, black and holed up in an SUV in Soho, Tank spends most of his days, not pimping his ride, but watching and admiring Merchant Ivory’s Remains of the Day, itself a portrait of the age of deference in decline. If the criticism of Ritchie is that he’s a self-loathing posh boy in search of EastEnd authenticity, then Tank’s a tough guy fetishising aristocratic manners. ‘You know a man’s cultivated when he’s got a Whistler on the wall’, he states gently. Class, for Ritchie, is little more than consumer choice – dress up or dress down.

But there’s more to the criticism of Ritchie than his inauthenticity. It’s his film’s central element, the backslapping laddish fantasy, that really raises the hackles of the right-on critics. Admittedly Ritchie’s vision sometimes seems to be of the same stripe as the Carlsberg adverts, or worse still, those WKD ones, where a huddle of pant-skidding pranksters superglue their mate to a toilet seat before celebrating with a bottle of mouthwash. WicKeD. But, it’s not the limits of Ritchie’s portrait that prompt the bile. It’s that his gangster fantasy transforms the working-class male from an emotionally damaged object of well-meaning pity, as seen in anything from Nil by Mouth to Secrets and Lies, into an assertive, fun-loving bloke on the make.

It seems that the criticism Ritchie suffers from is not because his work is a posh boy’s dream of ‘real’ life, nor even that it’s a fantasy. Rather it’s that it’s the wrong sort of fantasy. For if it is not grittily victimising, then it is not right. Such wilful myopia means that Ritchie’s enjoyable self-parody is mistaken for the working-class delusion of a toff in want of some substance.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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