When filmmaker Guy Ritchie has strayed from making films in the crime genre, he’s struggled. Last year’s live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin showcased his penchant for mischievous stories, but musical comedy proved not to be the director’s forte. He’s best when he tackles the crime genre, as in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Snatch (2000). This year, the British writer/director returns to his comfort zone with the R-rated The Gentlemen. The movie is chock full of low-lifes, robberies, murders, and double-crosses. It’s a lot of fun and a welcome return for Ritchie.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Pearson, a cannabis baron in London, inching more and more towards respectable society. He hob-knobs with dukes and duchesses while giving generously to various charities. Still, he makes a societal faux pas when he snubs the handshake of tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) at a party. This sets into motion a vengeful scheme on Big Dave’s part to bring down the drug kingpin. Assigned to expose all of Mickey’s skullduggery for the paper is private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a man whose sneer of a grin instantly lets us know he’s wholly untrustworthy.
Indeed, the conniving PI shows up at the house of Mickey’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) to inform him of all the dirt he’s got on his boss. Fletcher tells Raymond that his editor thinks it’s worth 150,000 pounds, but he figures it’s worth a lot more to Mickey. Thus, he sets a blackmail scheme into motion that’ll cost Mickey 20 million pounds. This is the framing device that weaves back and forth throughout Ritchie’s film, showcasing both the story in flashbacks as well as crackling dialogue in the telling of it. It’s like having Robert McKee’s cake and eating it too – Ritchie loves to show and tell.
Narratively, this has always been a big part of Ritchie’s style, buttressed right up against his gonzo energy and epic nastiness. He loves storytelling that baits and switches too, holding certain cards close to the vest until the final denouement, not unlike Agatha Christie in one of her drawing-room mysteries. It felt fresh in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, but by RocknRolla in 2008, audiences knew not to believe what we were seeing.
The same suspicions apply here, and it takes some of the fun out of matters as we feel like we’re being conned, just like the cons in the story. Often we can see the rug-pulls coming and that takes away some of their effectiveness as well. Still, it’s where Ritchie feels comfortable as a storyteller, using shock and awe as principle guns in his arsenal. Even if such tropes elicit groans as well as gasps after so much use, they’re still fairly amusing.
What Ritchie is most successful at is creating vivid, underworld characters and casting actors against type to play them. Henry Golding could be the next James Bond, but here he plays Dry Eye, a pompous and ruthless rival in the drug trade that is quite the 180 from his matinee idol image. Jeremy Strong, so ruthless on HBO’s Succession, is playing a similarly callous fiend here, albeit one who’s mannered and fay. Michelle Dockery plays Mickey’s tough-talking, East End wife, a thousand miles from Downton Abbey, and the actress relishes each profanity-laced put-down she utters.
Charlie Hunnam is especially good at playing Mickey’s sly and thoughtful fixer, but no one is having more fun onscreen this outing than Hugh Grant. Using his distaste for all the tabloids that have hounded him for years, he creates an onscreen sleazebag for the ages. His corrupt character acts brazen one moment, cowardly the next. Grant is a comic joy, reveling in playing such a louse. (Someone should showcase a Hugh Grant triple bill of baddies with The Gentlemen, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Paddington 2.) Colin Farrell is a scene-stealer too, wisely underplaying his boxing coach with a penchant for track-suits and tongue-twisting jibes.
It’s fun to see McConaughey embracing the gravitas and bearing his part requires, as well as his character’s moments of extreme violence. As always, Ritchie’s approach to bloodletting is both brutal and burlesque. An accidental fall out of a high-rise window is played for cartoonish splats and laughs. A character’s drug-induced fornication with a pig isn’t shown, but Ritchie doesn’t refrain from all of the awful noises it involves as well. It’s such theater-of-the-mind that likely earned this film it’s R.
To that point, some of Ritchie’s overindulgence will raise eyebrows, especially when he relies on racism, homophobia, rape, drug addiction, and the C-word for laughs in various places. Both groans and grasps may be more prevalent than laughs there, and it’s a shame as his script is funny enough without such excess. Particularly egregious is the use of the term “Chinamen” to describe the Asian gangsters. One would like to think that even a hood in modern times would refrain from such disparaging monikers.
Despite such politically incorrect ploys, Ritchie still plays moralist in the film, condemning some characters for their sins, while forgiving others. After being married to Madonna many years ago, it’s clear he grew to have very little sympathy for the tabloid press and that’s why Fletcher and Big Dave are presented as worse scoundrels than most of the other villains.
Ritchie delivers the goods in his new criminal yarn, but after two decades in the biz, it would be fun to see him stretch a bit more. Granted, he should stay away from musicals and remakes like Swept Away, but perhaps he could apply some of his moralizings to the world of modern politics. It’s one often as egregious as any tabloid. Imagine him taking down some of those baddies in parliament and the lot. Guy Ritchie’s Brexit, anyone?
Check out the trailer below: