A missing treasure pursued by foreign mobsters; dead rock stars and seedy agents; English thugs and loads of drugs. "RocknRolla" may sound familiar to fans of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," but rest assured, this ain't your older brother's Guy Ritchie movie.
"You can consider this movie along those lines — but even better," Chris Bridges, the artist otherwise known as Ludacris, enthused on the London set of the new film. "I call it 'gangsta.' "
Indeed, to listen to star Toby Kebbell describe the plot is to once again wander down those back-end streets, following Ritchie as he shuffles past high society and shines a flashlight deep into a shady underworld. In signature labyrinthine fashion, of course, nothing — not even death — is exactly what it seems.
"It's about wealthy Russians buying property and how they get linked up with Lenny Cole [Tom Wilkinson] who is going to help them out," Kebbell explained of the film's setup. "The Russian is so happy with his help he gives him a painting which goes missing. So Lenny's looking for it, and as it turns out, Johnny Story, my character, has it. But Johnny's supposed to be dead. He was a rock and roll star, [but] he disappeared, had an obituary. He's living in a crack house and it's kind of about them coming and getting me."
That search for Johnny and the painting takes director Ritchie and actors Kebbell, Luda and Jeremy Piven (who plays Story's music manager) to the Battersea Power Station, an enormous, real-life, electricity-generating facility built in 1939 and abandoned in 1983 (designed, incidentally, by the same man who created those ubiquitous red telephone booths).
A garish, industrial eyesore on the bank of the Thames River, the Battersea Power Station has long been an iconic London landmark, appearing in scores of movies (such as the second film adaptation of George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," where it stood in for the Ministry of Love) and album covers (like Pink Floyd's Animals). It generally symbolizes ugly hypermodernism.
And that's just what it symbolizes for Ritchie too. Because in his film, Battersea is still about modernism — it's just a city's modernity that's not driven anymore by its natives.
"The power structure [in London] has shifted over the last 20 years to the degree that somebody will see London as the new New York," the director said. "[The location] is supposed to reflect that, reflect the foreign money and the foreign power that has come into the U.K. and the various activities that have come with that power and money."
"London is changing," Ludacris added. "The Russians are bringing money in, buying up real estate, buying up property, buying up a lot of the city. It's a melting pot."
And that, at last, said Ritchie, is what makes this film different from "Lock, Stock" or "Snatch," despite the obvious parallels.
"There's a whole sort of genre that I'm associated with and I've always liked that genre and this is in that genre, but it's different in certain respects," Ritchie said. "We're making a social commentary, without sounding too pretentious. It's a social commentary with a bit of humor. So it's a bit of what I know how to do and a bit of [something] new."
Which is not to say, of course, that the film is lacking the usual Guy Ritchie flourishes — those fast-talking, double-crossing characters that inspired screenwriting guru Robert McKee to credit Ritchie with creating a whole new genre of filmmaking: the "black farce." All that's back and more, Ritchie argued, because of the nature of his new antagonists.
"I had observed all these things that have become phenomenons really: the Russian billionaires, the fact that they don't haggle the way that traditionally haggling is understood," he said of the creative license afforded by the foreigners. "They just sort of double the price and the consequences of that is it's changed the way we do business both legally and illegally."
According to castmembers, it all adds up to a rock-and-roller coaster of delicate construction and big thrills.
"Guy puts so much work into his scripts," Piven said. "It's a world that he knows about and loves, and that comes across in the writing. It's one of those things where you read it and you are kind of transported to that world."
Also starring Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton, "RocknRolla" opens in 2008.
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