The Guy Ritchie story is pretty familiar by now: he bursts onto the scene with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a thoroughly enjoyable Tarantino ripoff, follows up with Snatch (basically the same movie, with Brad Pitt), marries Madonna, his movie career falls off the deep end, and then the marriage falls apart. The great hope among his fans was that getting kicked to the curb would finally bring him back to the promise he showed with his first two movies. But his latest, RocknRolla, is just another disappointment, the exact same plot template as Lock Stock and Snatch, with more incoherent subplots, worse writing, and a nearly interminable 2-hour runtime.
The plot is so complicated that much of it is explained in a long series of voiceovers. His good guys are trying to make money off land, but they run into trouble with the local power broker, who manages to rig a deal to force them into his debt. He then enters into a deal with a Russian billionaire, who is being played by his own accountant. For some reason, there's a lucky painting, which the billionaire gives the broker, and it's immediately stolen by the broker's son, the titular junkie rock singer. The rest of the movie follows each character chasing the money and the painting.
Well, it's not all bad. As usual, Ritchie assembles a good cast to counterbalance his usual problem of having too many characters. Tom Wilkinson is a lot of fun as the familiar scene-chewing geezer crimelord of London, a much less subtle villain than he played in Batman Begins, and he is clearly enjoying himself. The rest of the stars, Mark Strong, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, Gerard Butler, don't embarrass themselves or choke on the overwritten dialogue, but neither do they rise above it.
Still, the dialogue's the problem. Ritchie seems only to have one story to tell -- disparate groups of London gangsters chasing a Macguffin -- and only one way to tell it, with choppy editing, overuse of voiceovers, recycled character types, and tough-guy writing that makes every line verge into a monologue. However, the biggest problem isn't that we've seen it all before. The last time he went to the same well, Snatch, it worked. It's that he keeps on trying to do more with the same formula, and he's simply hit a wall. His dialogue is longer, more forced and less funny. He has to rely on more voiceovers because he tries to shoehorn more subplots into the same running time. Like M. Night Shyamalan (or Paul Thomas Anderson), he has turned into a director who should no longer be allowed to write his own scripts.
I haven't lost all faith in Ritchie -- "Lock Stock" is still one of my favorite movies, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt as long as I can. His next movie is Sherlock Holmes, which (hopefully) will force him out of his comfort zone enough to rediscover the sure touch he had his first time out. But I'm not optimistic.