"RocknRolla" (* * ½ out of four) takes director Guy Ritchie back to London's gritty streets, and thankfully as far away as possible from the soggy island landscape of his 2002 film "Swept Away."
Ritchie has returned to the world of snarky crime capers that he captured effectively beginning a decade ago with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and continuing with "Snatch."
This Cockney crime saga stars an almost unrecognizable Tom Wilkinson as Lenny, an aging crime boss who likes to think he still controls London's underworld.
His next in command, and the film's narrator, is Archie (an excellent Mark Strong, who has a strong part in Body of Lies, which also opens this week).
When Uri (Karel Roden), a wealthy Russian gangster, involves Lenny in a real estate swindle, he also insists on giving Lenny his "lucky painting" as a show of faith. The painting sets into motion a ludicrous chain of events. Speaking of ludicrous, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges co-stars as Roman, who pals around with another small-time hood played by Jeremy Piven.
Uri's glamorous accountant, Stella (Thandie Newton), transfers the deal money, but things go awry, thanks to a pair of petty crooks (Gerard Butler and Idris Elba). Some silly-funny moments between Butler and Elba ensue, particularly over Elba's sexual proclivities.
As is typical of Ritchie movies, many things are happening simultaneously and frantically. Butler's character falls for Stella, Archie takes abuse from his boss, and a drug-addled rock star brilliantly named Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) is integrally involved.
There's plenty of mayhem and bullet-riddled violence, some of it quite jolting. Still, the film is punctuated with moments of dark humor.
Another asset is its soundtrack, a mélange of '60s and more current rock, along with songs by The Clash serving as perfect accompaniment to the action.
The plot seems to drift off point, while the bloodshed grows, which is customary in a Ritchie movie.
His edgy and visually bracing direction is better than his writing, though his oft-imitated, fast-paced style doesn't seem nearly as fresh as it once did.
For a crime caper with more dimension and elements of surprise, as well as sharp dialogue and nuanced characters, check out last year's "In Bruges," starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.
"RocknRolla" is a well-acted and attitudinal action movie, a return to Ritchie's trademark "Mockney" style, which takes amusing and twisted turns.
(Rated R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Opens today in select cities.)