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Down and dirty Things get nasty in Guy Ritchie's London underground

If you've been on a supermarket checkout line recently, you know that, according to Us magazine, Guy Ritchie called his soon-to-be-ex Madonna "old, fat, ugly and wrinkled." Inside, you learn that he said she was stupid and couldn't sing either.

So says one of Madonna's pals.

Rude behavior, to be sure, even in the early stages of a grotesquely public divorce, but anyone who has seen Ritchie's cinematic thug fantasies might even find it plausible.

The newest Ritchie gangster movie, "RocknRolla," is a return to form from the guy who once gave us such delightful numbskull fantasies about the British underworld as "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."

Here, at long last, we have the roughneck gangster comedy/thriller about the London real estate business we've all been hoping and praying for.

I jest (or try, anyway), but actually one of the best things about "RocknRolla" is that it gives you a nice portrait of a world where big-money real estate development, art theft, rock 'n' roll and numbskull street goons all intermingle with blood and humiliation around every corner. The only thing missing for these vicious people are the paparazzi and tabloid headlines.

The big player here is Lenny, a profane, murderous London mega-mobster who wears tinted glasses, snarls at everyone indiscriminately and opines to all who would learn "property is always a safe bet, but you've got to know what you're doing."

Lenny is a man who knows the proper way to slap an underling and is willing to teach anyone who'd learn.

Enter a recent arrival from Russia named Uri, who's just loaded with ill-gotten billions and causes Lenny to lick his money-hungry chops. He wants to make a deal so badly it almost cheers him up. A friendship is established. Valuable art is loaned from Uri to hang on Lenny's wall.

And, of course, things go kerflooey, involving half the criminal class of London, top (Thandie Newton: brainy, sex-trading and utterly without principle) and bottom (Gerard Butler: a leg-breaker and freelancer known as One Two).

There's a lot more torture in Guy Ritchie movies than there is in the average '30s tale of underworld eccentricity, but when you've got characters named Tank, Fred the Head and Handsome Bob, you might well suspect that his fantasies are, at heart, closer to Damon Runyon or even Frank Capra than Quentin Tarantino, for all the self-evident sadism.

He's probably a nice boy, Guy Ritchie, no matter how rude he is on magazine covers or in movies.

So here's a movie where street scalpers watch "The Remains of the Day" in their enormous SUVs and mobsters inform us "you know a man's cultured when he's got Whistler on the wall." It's also a movie that tells us of the perils of watching reruns of "Bonanza" on Sundays -- all those "guns, nuns and cowboys."

Along with the heartening persistence of Ritchie's talent for telling us vicious comic stories about nasty idiots, this movie proves two other things:

1) Gerard Butler, of "300," can do a lot more than chuck Spartan spears and race around in leather skivvies. And. . .

2) Tom Wilkinson may be the most versatile and convincing screen actor in the English-speaking world. He commands the screen as scowling, scabrous Lenny in every scene he's in. To think that the same man was madly manic in "Michael Clayton," so subtly miserable in "Separate Lies" and so eloquently repressed in "In the Bedroom" (not to mention Benjamin Franklin in HBO's "John Adams") is to be confronted with the miracle of what the great English actors can do onscreen -- almost effortlessly.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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ROCKNROLLA

STARRING: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton and Jeremy Piven

DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

RATING: R for language, sex and violence.

THE LOWDOWN: London street goons, real estate moguls and Russian billionaires mix it up in Guy Ritchie's newest fantasy about British Thugville.

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