The Gentlemen is being touted as a return to form for Guy Ritchie — not the director behind blockbuster bombs like King Arthur or tepid Disney live-action remakes like Aladdin, but the electric, raucous auteur behind Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. And Ritchie is aware of this going into The Gentlemen, a contemporary gangster movie that has a sense of timelessness to it. But The Gentlemen is very much about the times, or rather, a time gone by: the era in which gangsters did things the old, mean, dirty way. But the times, they are a’changing, and a new guard of gangsters — represented by a delightfully unhinged Henry Golding — threatens to upend the balance. Or do they?
The Gentlemen tells the story of American drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who has built the largest weed empire in the U.K. over the past few decades. But Mickey is ready to retire and sell his cannabis estate to American businessman Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) to take the business legal as weed becomes legalized in the country. But the sharks already smell blood in the water, and rival gangsters and vengeful newspapermen descend on Mickey to vie for power. All this is told in hyperbolic fashion by sleazy private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who tries to use his knowledge about all the warring factions, and the blood on Mickey’s hands, to blackmail Mickey’s right-hand man, Raymond (Guy Ritchie).
“Roll ’em!” Fletcher shouts to invisible cameras before he launches into his wild tale at the beginning of the film, and immediately the tape rolls back and we’re whisked away to this hyper-realistic fantasy land of Ritchie’s making. It’s a fun structure for the film, especially because Grant makes sure to chew up as much as scenery as possible — injecting silly comments in an over-the-top cockney accent that would make Dick van Dyke blush. Telling the story of The Gentlemen through Fletcher’s outrageous “screenplay” lends the film a heightened semi-satirical quality while managing to make some of the irritatingly racist jokes a little forgivable (though not entirely, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later), because it’s told through the point of view of the boorish Fletcher, who Grant plays with a slimy aplomb.
Grant is the standout of a cast of charismatic actors who are wholly devoted to going as big as possible. Their performances are what drive the film even as it trudges through some of its more convoluted parts, most of which involves a minor Royal who asks Mickey to retrieve his heroin-addicted daughter. The story gets far too complicated its own good, and Ritchie could stand to trim some of the excess. (You might say, he gets lost in the weeds. Okay, I’ll stop). But the cast are obviously having such a blast playing these glamorous, larger-than-life characters that you can’t help but be entertained. Golding happily plays against type, trading his usual mega-watt smile for one filled with crooked teeth and a menacing stare. Michelle Dockery fabulously struts around in perfectly tailored pantsuits and a withering stare that sends a shiver down the spine of the most powerful men. Colin Farrell is a scene-stealing delight in the brief moments that he appears, sporting plaid tracksuits and a hilariously foul mouth as Coach, a boxing coach whose students get mixed up in Mickey’s war. Jeremy Strong is doing…something, playing his calculating businessman with an effeminate flair that I’m guessing is supposed to mask his cold intentions while betraying his genteel background, but mostly comes off as just as a bizarre acting choice. McConaughey and Hunman are the closest to being the straight men of the bunch, with McConaughey playing a fairly straightforward cool-headed gangster protagonist with a hair-trigger temper, though Hunman injects a bit of dry wit into his portrayal of Mickey’s strongman with a conscience, as if he’s the one who’s most in on the joke.
What that joke is, who’s to say? Ritchie is too happily self-indulgent to poke fun at his own kind of gangster film, so instead he points the finger at the easiest target: the youngsters! Golding’s Dry Eye and Coach’s self-absorbed millennial students are roundly ridiculed (though to be fair, Ritchie’s depiction of the boxing students’ Tik Tok-style music videos are legitimately hilarious) by the old guard of gangsters, who lambaste them for biting off more than they can chew. But the uncomfortable undertone of this is that Ritchie degrades the only major characters of color in this film, writing off the Chinese gangsters as the nouveau rich who won’t be able to seize power. This feels more insidious even than Fletcher’s racist jabs at Dry Eye’s “Ricense to kill” (yes, emphatically pronouncing the “r” sound) or Mickey calling Dry Eye a “duck-eating c**t.”
The Gentlemen is a film about Ritchie flexing his muscles and standing on his lawn to yell at the new kids for daring to tread on it. It attempts to tackle class divides and generational gaps, and yet its ultimate message is in favor of the status quo. Ritchie doesn’t handle the messages he wishes to impart as skillfully as he could — instead, he’s preoccupied with revisiting the beats that made his acclaimed gangster films work best: the sleek style, the staccato rhythm, the casual hyperviolence that begets more violence and an occasional laugh. At times, The Gentlemen feels almost satirical, with characters winking and prodding at the thin membrane of the gangster film, but Ritchie’s tongue misses the cheek and instead sticks it out at the audience as if saying, “Remember when I did it best?”
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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