The Gentlemen, 2020.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Strong, and Eddie Marsan.
An American businessman who controls much of London’s cannabis trade becomes a target for many underworld figures when rumours of his retirement begin to circulate.
Guy Ritchie has had a most unpredictable career, that much most of us can agree. After dazzling audiences with the one-two slow-mo punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, the hotshot filmmaker seemed destined for a career chock with entertainingly superficial motormouth geeza romps.
But in the 20 years that followed, Ritchie did all of the following; made a terrible rom-com while in the throes of love with Madonna (Worst Picture Razzie winner Swept Away), took a brief detour into pretentiousness (Revolver), retooled both Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur to varying degrees of success, and most bafflingly of all, helmed a $180 million live-action Aladdin remake.
None among us could’ve seen much of this coming, but given how Ritchie’s recent grunt work for Disney benefitted not a touch from his distinct filmmaking personality, it’s enormously, perhaps paradoxically refreshing to see Ritchie returning to his old cinematic stomping ground.
The Gentlemen, to be clear, is not a great gangster film; it is probably overly indebted to Ritchie’s own cinematic history and makes virtually no attempt to offer up timely revisions on gangster mythmaking. But what it is is the first Guy Ritchie film in many years that finds a harmonious middle-ground between its various moving parts; the actors, easily the highlight of the project, work in remarkable concert with Ritchie’s most tonally buoyant and inspired script in a long time – some iffy foibles notwithstanding.
Our protagonist-ish is Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American transplant living in London who, over the course of his adult life, has clawed and built himself a highly lucrative cannabis empire. When he announces a desire to cash-out of the business and retire, an avalanche of schemers and reprobates start circling, keen to deny him a life of peace and pad their wallets in the process.
As you can probably glean from that synopsis, The Gentleman‘s plot is effectively a whatever mishmash of various kooky crime capers you’ve seen before. In the grand tradition of an atmosphere-soaked film noir, though, it really seems beside the point.
This is a movie absolutely propelled by its characters, of which there are many, and of which many are a joy to behold. As our lead Mickey, McConaughey is a weird choice in much the same way that Brad Pitt was back in 2000’s Snatch, but kitted out in smooth threads and rarely far away from a refreshing drink, he fits the part like a glove.
However, he’s entirely outclassed by Hugh Grant of all people, who takes every opportunity to munch up the scenery as he regales both the viewer and Charlie Hunnam’s lackey Raymond – also very good here – with the twisty tale of the very story we’re watching.
In an hilariously self-indulgent early moment, his cockney private investigator Fletcher literally stops the film to inform the audience that the flashback they’re about to see will be rendered in 35mm film for full cinematic effect. In another instance he even talks about how much he finds Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation boring.
Thankfully Ritchie knows better than to take his metanarrative aspirations in the direction of philosophical wankery ala Revolver; it’s purely playful, and while not much for nuance, does sufficiently ensure the pic chugs along at a neat cruising altitude. It’s not rushed enough to feel frantic, but always urgent.
To return to Grant, it’s tough to imagine a time where he seemed to be having more fun – save for his BAFTA-nominated turn in Paddington 2, of course – and he is just the charming scumbag anchor this film desperately needed. Even when he’s the butt of several old-hat gay jokes, Grant’s chameleonic performance saves the day.
But the performances are indeed strong across the board; Colin Farrell in particular is his acerbic, fast-speaking best as a fiery Irish boxing coach who gets pulled into the focal debacle by no real fault of his own. His attempts to tidy things up, layered with a quick temper and fast-evaporating patience for the dim-witted, makes for hilarious viewing.
There’s also a welcome change of type for Henry Golding, who appears sporadically as gangster Dry Eye, an ego-driven asshat who wishes to steamroll his way to prosperity no matter what. He couldn’t be further from the handsome charmer that headlined Crazy Rich Asians or Last Christmas, and that’s no bad thing.
Michelle Dockery also gives a spiky performance which plays terrifically against-type as Mickey’s wife Ros, and while Ritchie’s ripe parts for women are few and far between – no, Princess Jasmine doesn’t count – this is certainly one of his most memorable. Hearing the typically prim Dockery spit vocal fire and dress-down the man-children she’s surrounded by is one of the film’s easy highlights.
These actors would be up the creek without a top-form Ritchie script, though, and thankfully he mostly delivers. The witty dialogue is shot between the actors with the busy cadence of machine-gun fire, and regular Ritchie editor James Herbert effortlessly stitches the snappy dialogues together to form a whole that’s at once fleet-footed and surprisingly coherent. It’s hardly the most visually ambitious or interesting film in the director’s cachet, but after two back-to-back over-budgeted blockbusters, there’s something to be said for this film’s more pared-down, straightforward style.
And that’s clearly where Ritchie is best at home, because the director hasn’t seemed this sure of himself since the days of at least RocknRolla. And while the throwback to Ritchie’s heyday is a mostly fortuitous trip down memory lane, audiences couldn’t be blamed for wincing at some of the unapologetically un-PC dialogue on offer, making casual jokes at the expense of gay people and, well, anyone who isn’t white.
These moments are infrequent enough not to sink the endeavour, and the characters themselves are hardly aspirational figures, but even so, there’s the explicit feeling that Ritchie wants us to laugh at the content of these comments rather than the foolishness of the pigs speaking them.
But if you can stomach some of the less-inspired vulgarity on offer, The Gentlemen makes smart use of its skilled cast, and spins a yarn which while not inherently memorable on its own, is elevated by the clear amount of work put into spinning it.
A stubborn Guy Ritchie Joint in ways both charming and problematic, but also easily the director’s best film in around a decade.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.