Release: Friday, January 24, 2020
Written by: Ivan Atkinson; Marn Davies; Guy Ritchie
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
The Gentlemen appears as a sight for sore eyes for anyone hoping for Guy Ritchie to return to form. After a string of generic blockbusters that kicked off with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and then lasted forever, it seemed pretty clear he was not returning to his old stomping grounds — the seedy, criminal underworld of London as depicted in indie hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) and Snatch (2000). And why would he? Franchise filmmaking has rewarded him. His “hot” Aladdin remake turned out to be really hot — grossing more than a billion dollars at the global box office last year.
Like a sequel, The Gentlemen is not as fresh as the early Cockney gangster films that put his name on the map but it is another example of the transformative effect of Ritchie’s style and process. His movies are litmus tests of his cast’s willingness to separate brand image from the bell-ends they’re compelled to become as well as their ability to adapt on the fly to his extemporaneous approach to shooting. His latest crime comedy features as many plot points, diversions and schemes as it does famous faces, and it does not disappoint when it comes to watching big-name actors trying to wrap their mouths around Ritchie’s barbwire dialogue. Some succeed more than others, but with the sheer size of The Gentlemen‘s roster, it’s a pretty high success rate.
Oscar-winner and proud Texan Matthew McConaughey passes muster as Mickey Pearson, an expat who left his poverty-stricken life in America thanks to a scholarship to Oxford. As many a McConaughey character is wont to do, he becomes a major cannabis advocate. What began as a small business venture selling to the stuffy students evolves into a massively profitable weed empire founded on (technically under) British soil and through violence and intimidation on the streets. When conspiring circumstances force the old man out of the game, he triggers an avalanche of plots and schemes as a long line of potentials vie to take his place upon the throne. But it will take more than pure business acumen to actually oust a king.
In the simplest terms, The Gentlemen boils down to a potential transaction between two savvy businessmen who both happen to be Yankees — Pearson and billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, who seems least at home in this environment). In Ritchie’s world trust, like political correctness, is always in short supply. There’s borderline none of it here, with Strong’s annoyingly nebbish (but at least well-dressed) Berger possibly in cahoots with even worse people. Rogue agent Dry Eye (Henry Golding, doing good work to separate himself from a recent string of hunky eligible bachelor types) blows through the narrative, utterly unconcerned about the damage he’s doing and whose business he’s worse for. His arrogance makes him a true threat to Pearson’s power and legacy. Themes collide full-force in one of the movie’s signature scenes wherein a hopeful Dry Eye offers to buy Pearson out at an exorbitant price. And it is bad form to decline such an offer when it’s so clear his time is up as ruler of this urban jungle.
The characters are certainly worth remembering but the other big part of the equation is the deliberately convoluted storytelling. The Gentlemen is ambitious to a fault. It’s daunting enough to keep up with this labyrinth of relationships, clandestine partnerships and double-crosses unfolding. But, as it turns out, this whole farce is taking place in the not-so-distant past. The details are relayed to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), consigliere to the King of Kush, by a gloriously against-type Hugh Grant as Fletcher, a smarmy private investigator who is trying to blackmail those who have wronged Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), the editor of a British tabloid journal. The framing device — “let’s play a game, Raymond,” Fletcher pleads like a school boy with a dirty little secret — overcomplicates an already stuffed narrative.
It’s not as though nothing good has come of Ritchie’s rise to prominence in the mainstream. The Gentlemen is a crime comedy of noticeably increased scale. We’ve outgrown the neighborhood of card sharps, street brawlers and estate agents and moved to the international ring of truly bad blokes and drug lords. Here you’ll encounter everyone from low-ranking British Lords to sons of Russian oligarchs and at least two generations of Chinese gangsters. There’s also Colin Farrell running around trying to repay a debt after his ragtag group of MMA fighters ignorantly steals something they shouldn’t have. For what it cost to make The Gentlemen, Ritchie could have made Snatch and RocknRolla with money left over to blow on van loads of ganja. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, yet from a technical standpoint the movie justifies the price tag — the wardrobes snazzy and the production design a classy, sleek upgrade.
For all that is ridiculous and excessive about The Gentlemen, I can’t really complain. It’s just nice to have our Guy back.
Recommendation: SPOILERS LURK IN THIS SECTION. Come for the cast, stay for the schadenfreude (and the insults). There aren’t too many good people here to root for. In fact, that’s part of what makes The Gentlemen interesting. It’s refreshing to see the villain come out on top for a change.
Running Time: 113 mins.
Quoted: “There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!”
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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb