How does an actor tap his inner psycho baddie? The novel answer this year is: by disguising himself as an ugly bald man. Tom Cruise got his freak on by playing the corrupt studio boss of Tropic Thunder as a repulsive chrome-dome nerd, and now the wily Tom Wilkinson so brilliant as the lawyer who went out of his gourd with guilt in Michael Clayton goes bald, pudgy, and horn-rimmed as a gnashing cockney mob boss in Guy Ritchie's decadently entertaining RocknRolla. For these actors, grotty makeup is liberation the freedom to hurl themselves into disgusting behavior. As Lenny Cole, a gangster who rules the thriving real estate market in London by bribing politicians, and muscling them, too (whatever it takes to send his deals flying through the bureaucracy), Wilkinson spews his lines with the frothing relish of an angrier Michael Caine. He's the rare actor who can telegraph joie de vivre while lowering his enemies into a pool of hungry crawfish.
The thing is, Lenny isn't even the film's heart of darkness. Early on, he brokers a deal with a dead-eyed Russian billionaire (Karel Roden), and it's the Russian a monster of global capitalism who represents anarchy; Lenny, by contrast, is a brute with a code. Up till now, I've more or less hated Guy Ritchie's piston-pumping music-video approach to crime. His thrillers, like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, are so laminated in blood and poses and stylistic frosting that they're not hip, they're numb. But Ritchie, in RocknRolla, dials down the Kewl Ultraviolence and finds the discipline to tell a good story.
As a hood who works for Lenny (and fearlessly rips him off), Gerard Butler, from 300, uses his burly, earthy gruffness to ground the film, and he's surrounded by terrific actors like Thandie Newton, cold as dry ice as a mob accountant, and Tony Kebbell, who plays a junkie rock star with feral energy and the hungriest of eyes. Ritchie cribs shamelessly from GoodFellas and Tarantino, but he also riffs on gangster homophobia, the mechanisms of urban sprawl, and the evil ways of addiction. He concocts a crime-jungle demimonde that's organically linked to the real world, and it's a damn fun one to visit. B+