Nov 5, 2008 at 12:00 am

Guy Ritchie, knee-jerk director and one-time Mr. Madonna, is still more entertaining than most of what passes for hip crime thrillers these days, particularly when you chart the vast catalogue of failed Tarantino wannabes. But despite Ritchie's gift for convoluted plotlines and colorful characters with violently conflicting agendas, RockNRolla feels unfocused, half-hearted and undercooked.

In fact, it'd be a strain to recount the useless intricacies of RockNRolla's discombobulated plot. Suffice it to say that British mobsters and Russian gangsters come to unpleasant blows when a sexy accountant (Thandie Newton) recruits a trio of amiable thugs to intercept their money. Oh, and there's also Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a violent, junkie rock star who's the adopted son of limey mob boss Lenny (played with scenery-chewing panache by Tom Wilkinson).

You'd think from the film's opening scene (and concluding moments) that Johnny's meant to be the protagonist, but you'd be wrong. Which is ultimately why Ritche's film fails. He has no idea whose story he's telling. Unlike Jason Statham, who gave us an engaging entry point in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie's latest exercise in gun-toting, rapid-fire machismo refuses to settle on any one character for very long.

Nominally, an Irish hooligan named One-Two (300's Gerald Butler) leads us, and his mates, through some of the caper-gone-wrong's twists. But then there's the inexplicable voice-over narration by Archie (the terrific Mark Strong) and the numerous minutes we spend with Wilkinson as he negotiates with the Ruskies. It's the kind of sloppy, self-indulgent writing that'd sink a lesser filmmaker. Luckily, Ritchie's snappy pace, crazed swagger and swirling camera movements save RockNRolla from total ruin.

You could argue that Ritchie's fetish for gunplay and casual violence is all posture, a flippant embrace of nihilism. But that would deny him the British caste warfare his films morally deconstruct, as lowlifes and classless up-and-comers strive for material gain but end up spiraling into an absurd snake-pit of betrayal, violence and loss. Take, for instance, the cold and uninvolving Thandie Newton, whose bored but privileged character ends up on an ironic path to destruction. While the street-level thugs in Ritchie's films go to brutal lengths to end up back where they started, the top dogs, who are unable to appreciate their successes, find only horrifying ruin.

Is this reading too much into Ritchie's high-voltage artifice? Maybe. But since the violence is so stagey and noncommittal, and the characters are so relentlessly cinema-inspired, one wonders if there isn't more to his slickly conceived argot. But RockNRolla benefits from enough wit and humor to compensate for its glaring shortcomings. (A relentlessly hilarious foot chase with indestructible Soviet goons, a 10-second sex montage and One-Two's struggle with a mate's homosexuality remind us of Ritchie at his best.)

It's time for the director to tackle more challenging material because no matter how rockin' the sound, playing a single note will only get you so far, just ask Madonna. Luckily, it looks like his next film, Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as leads, might allow him to become a filmmaker of notes.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].