Long before Guy Ritchie was a mainstream blockbuster filmmaker, his name was synonymous with the “British Gangster Film.” Fast talking criminals with a variety of regional accents fighting, fornicating, and engaging in gun-play, all the while dressed to the nines, tens, and elevens in order to look cool as ice. Not since RocknRolla (2005) has the filmmaker swam in these waters, instead using his time to make a variety of big budget distractions such as the underwhelming King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the overwhelmingly awful live-action remake of Aladdin. So now, with The Gentlemen, Ritchie is celebrating a welcome return to form, complete with bullets, Brits, and enough creative uses of the word “cunt” to make your grandmother shake her head in shame.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Piss, a career marijuana magnate who began his business selling to rich kids in college, and who now runs a massive clandestine growing operation underneath the large estates of aristocratic landowners. Mickey is looking to get out of the business before marijuana prohibition becomes a thing of the past. He has a potential buyer in Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a flamboyant billionaire and criminal leader in his own right. For a hefty price, Berger can inherit every aspect of Mickey’s operation, from which he can then turn it into a legitimate supplier for soon-to-exist legal marijuana distributors. Sure, Mickey could legitimize it himself, but he’d much rather retire and spend his days with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery).
The thing is, with such a power player wanting out of the game, there’s no shortage of upstart criminals who want a piece of his action. One such face is Dry Eye (Henry Golding), who works under Lord George (Tom Wu). Another element comes in the form of The Toddlers, a group of violent musicians who can’t help themselves but to do bad things in an effort to please their boxing coach, Coach (Colin Farrell). Also involved is a gossip rag magnate Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), who would love to see Mickey go down after a loaded social slight between the two men.
All of this is framed as a story being told by a man named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to Ray (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s right hand man. You see, Fletcher is a private investigator whose investigation into the ins and outs of Mickey’s business lead him to believe he might have some leverage over the entire operation. So much so, that he can demand a large sum of hush money before disappearing into the night.
Sound confusing? Don’t worry, this is par for the course when it comes to Guy Ritchie, whose crime films are typically so stuffed with extraneous detail that even the most savvy viewers would do well to disengage and just let the cooool wash over them. With things like Snatch, or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, conventional wisdom among Ritchie fans is to trust that it will all come together in the end. When it does, it’s always a thrilling thing to behold. The downside for this level of narrative calamity is that it leaves little room for the characters to develop beyond their exterior images. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because for Ritchie, style is substance, but for viewers who need something meatier to chew on, this could prove a liability.
With The Gentlemen, we see a significant reduction in the aggressive style present in things like RocknRolla and Snatch, and by having a framing device where one character is literally reciting the plot to another, we get a reduction in the confusion as well. The Gentlemen is probably the easiest film to follow in Ritchie’s crime oeuvre, but with the stylistic edges softened (not smoothed — not by a long shot), it becomes easier to recognize the areas where the script is lacking. In a way, Ritchie is retroactively showing his hand, revealing what we were all too gobsmacked by style to recognize: he’s saying literally nothing with his crime movies. He’s just having fun and showing off what he can do when not constrained by a contract with Disney. And frankly, when a movie is as ceaselessly fun as The Gentlemen, it’s hard to feel like we’re being short-changed. Do we really want deep thematic resonance in the middle of a film that features Colin Farrell in a tracksuit squirting sandwich spread into the eyes of surly teenagers? Nah, we don’t.
Despite being the top-billed actor, this isn’t McConaughey’s movie. He gets a small amount of screen time relative to many of the other players, but it’s his Mickey Piss that is the driving force of every action in the film. When he does show up, however, he smolders. Mickey is a terrifying man when he wants to be, and to see McConaughey slather on menace from behind a sharply tailored suit is a delight. It’s easy to see why Mickey is such a compelling force in the drug economy. Everyone respects him. Everyone fears him. Few understand him. McConaughey builds this character thoroughly out of just a few scant pages of material, while still maintaining the mystery which attracts the other underworld characters.
Henry Golding, who typically plays a clean cut, polite man, here plays a real piece of shit. He’s angry, violent, and dangerously cocky. What fun to watch this rising star chew on such sordid material. One character refers to his Dry Eye as “Chinese James Bond,” a description which vindicates this critic’s long held belief that Golding should absolutely be our next Bond. He’s perfect for it, and I’m hoping that this throwaway line means it’s somewhere out there in the ether.
The real stars of the film, however, are Charlie Hunnam and Hugh Grant, whose framing-device story should feel like excessive exposition, but in their able hands becomes a hilariously sloppy cat and mouse conversation, one which, given the broken timeline and unreliable narrator, brings enough surprises to keep the viewer from checking out. Hunnam is right at home as a tough guy with a tight lip, happy to let his stoic exterior (and his loyal bodyguards) speak for him, while Grant has traded his typical uptight English charm for a deliciously sleazy queerness that the performer is clearly relishing in. I should add that the sweater game in this movie is up there with Knives Out. I understand that this is an important thing nowadays.
Seeing Ritchie back in the driver’s seat (on the other side of the dash, of course) makes The Gentlemen extremely worthwhile for fans of the singular filmmaker’s style, and the film is funny and peppy enough, to play to a broader crowd as well, if they can stomach the violence and the crassness of it all. Killer soundtrack too.
Released nationwide January 24, 2020; in Philadelphia at the Roxy and elsewhere.