Guy Ritchie is a bit of a strange director. On the face of it, he appears to have a diverse range of interests, with his filmography jumping from gritty gangster drama to romantic tragedy to period action-comedy to spy thriller to epic fantasy to Disney. From a man who seemed to be pigeon-holing himself even as he released his best film – 2000’s Snatch, whose hallway shooting scene remains one of the blackly funniest things I have ever watched – that’s quite impressive in its own right. But the problem is that Richie always seems to come back to the same thing, regardless of nominal genre: geezers, gangsters and, well, gentlemen. These are all things that have popped up in otherwise unlikely surrounds such as the excellent Sherlock Holmes, its less excellent sequel, the forgettable The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and the truly awful King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword.
But when Ritchie has thrown himself fully into other things without recourse to what brought him to the dance, the results, like the disastrous Swept Away in 2002 or last year’s middling Aladdin remake (one of the oddest directorial appointments I have witnessed) will not live as long in the memory as Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Ritchie hasn’t actually made a fully successful (critically and commercially) film in a decade. Perhaps that recent run of duds explains his reversion to the comfortable surrounds of British crime comedy. Ritchie has hit the mark twice in that sub-genre, but would The Gentlemen be a saving grace and reminder of the director’s acumen, or a repetitive indication that he truly is out of ideas?
Canny American businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is the Kingpin of a complex but successful London-based marijuana empire but, desiring to get out of the game and retire with wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), he decides to try and sell to billionaire Matthew (Jeremy Strong). His decision sets off a chain of plots, blackmail and murder, involving consigliere Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), rival gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding), adversarial tabloid editor Mike (Eddie Marson), unhinged boxing tutor Coach (Colin Farrell) and private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant).
Myself and my girlfriend happen to catch The Gentlemen just as we were approaching the final stretch of Downton Abbey, and that more than anything might explain our joint agreement that Ritchie’s latest could be called “Downton Abbey: After Dark“. It isn’t just that Michelle Dockery is involved, and as a slightly conniving matriarch figure with an acid tongue. The Gentlemen, perhaps as its name indicates, is a film obsessed with the British upper classes: with their lives, with their great houses, with the way in which their existence and status remain attractive to those born outside of them, far outside in the case of McConaughey. Everything else revolves around that sense of ambition, most obviously in the way that the film demonstrates a dichotomy between the titular criminal of standing, and the more down-to-Earth obscene variety.
The Gentlemen may owe something of a debt to Ronny Yu’s The 51st State, that also followed an American outsider attempting to make it big in the British underworld. It’s trying to be that fish out of water tale, but Ritchie calls back to his gangster origins by crafting something that uses this story as the base point, for a film loaded down with plot and sub-plot. There’s the internal civil war of the rival crime organisation. There’s the well-off family with the drug-addled daughter. There’s the boxing coach who just wants to stop his braindead students from doing something truly stupid. There’s the tabloid honcho out to ruin a few lives. There’s a general look at the creeping gentrification of London, with heroin addict pop stars inhabiting council flats. And ever and on, the framing device, of Hugh Grant’s foul-mouthed and oh-so-aggressively homosexual PI narrating the story to Charlie Hunnam.
Whether you will enjoy The Gentlemen or not will depend largely on your tolerance for this level of branching narrative, and on whether you can stand the fairly pretentious, but most certainly entertaining, scriptwork employed. The characters of The Gentlemen talk like no one actually talks, almost a parody of received pronunciation and proper manner, just with lots of f’s and s’s and c’s thrown in at repeated intervals. Fletcher, a PI who doubled as a wannabe film producer and cinema expert – one suspects he is a stand-in for the director, with the character even having written a film-script version of the movie’s story – is the main offender. At times the perspicacity of the cast, or at least some of them, will suck you out of the story being told, but its fair to say that The Gentlemen would not be The Gentlemen without that strain of high verbal etiquette inter-cut with curse words.
I suppose that is the essence of the gentlemen criminal that Ritchie is trying to get across. Mickey wants to be a British lord. He’s even planning to buy a country mansion, despite the fact that the ones he visits are all falling apart, with inheritance tax obligations one of the reasons he’s able to ease his way into the money-straped upper class. He hobnobs with other elites, but at the end of the day he is a criminal, even if he is of the charming type, and is a criminal selling a drug that is likely to be legal within a decade. He’s contrasted with the more brutal types around him, like Dry Eyes, like Coach, like the council estate junkies and “chavs” he and his compatriots routinely have to deal with. It’s a film that seems at once in the present and yet out of time: the world that Mickey inhabits, or wants to inhabit, is a strange fiction, and the world that he really does live in is altogether more brutal and violent. This contrast gives the story a good bit of verve, but you never really relax in, not in the way you did with, say, Snatch.
The film is certainly funny, and not just in its use of foul language, but in several great comedic set-pieces. Farrell’s Coach challenges a group of belligerent teens in a chipper, cutting them down verbally before inviting a retort: he is crestfallen when it amounts to “Fuck you”. Charlie Hunnam lays down the law to a group of junkies who treat him impertinently: the situation escalates to a moment of suicidally macabre physical comedy, followed by a humiliating foot chase around a council estate. Fletcher spies on a high-level crime lord meeting from afar at a football stadium, but his lip-reading contractor can’t perform miracles: “Don’t pull my mouth hair” he has one participant saying.
Of course, one cannot but mention that the film treads a fine line when it comes to certain topics, and Ritchie has few qualms when it comes to sexist, racist or homosexual language. There is an edge here, and not the Hellboy 2019 kind of adolescent edge, but a sharper and more affecting edge. Some reviewers have branded the entire affair and the director as sexist or racist as a result, which is further than I would go: the characters, in this case I feel, do not represent a message from the director. Ritchie could do with some diversity in his viewpoint, but the film has heroes and villains of various creeds and colours, even if Fletcher’s uneasy aura as some kind of predatory homosexual reads like it was written by someone from half a century ago (then again, the character is a total cartoon) and even if one (antagonist) makes a “l’s are r’s” joke about Asians.
The preponderance of sub-plots is a flaw to a point – at times it can feel as if the various cast-members are almost competing for your attentions, or to out it more positively, everyone has a chance to stand-out – but is made up for by the cleverly manner in which the director draws everything into a concluding point (though his desire to present another new twist every five minutes in the third act gets a bit tiring). It also helps that the cast is so great: McConaghey shines, as you knew he would (his charm really is infectious), Hunnam maintains a dignity hiding genuine menace, Grant continues his recent journey through the world of unorthodox roles (interestingly, his character is at the heart of an anti-tabloid media message that permeates throughout) and Henry Golding is decent.
It’s Farrell who really steals the show as the rapidly talking and supremely funny Coach, lighting up any scene he is in. If there is a detraction to make on the acting front, it’s how Dockery is somewhat wasted in a role as the only female character of any real note, and relegated to being the “female”, a problem that Ritchie has priors in (in that regard, it should come as little surprise that the key plot points involving Dockery are sex appeal and sexual assault). Somewhat connectedly, Ritchie makes the odd choice to call attention to the production company, Miramax, in one scene late on, strange considering recent news events.
Visually, Ritchie is also looking to his first two features and bringing what made them memorable back to the table. That means plenty of montage; that means lots of rapid cutting between sub-plots; that means framing scenes that we return to repeatedly, and the film starting at the end, and lots and lots of panning shots. I will say that 2019’s gangster environment is a little bit more colourful than the late nineties and 2000; even the previously drab and almost monochrome London looks a bit more polished up.
I don’t know if that is a reflection of the maturation of the director or just a belated acknowledgement that the British capital isn’t all grey-swept buildings and streets, but it is to be welcomed. We go from council estates to country manors and back to youth clubs. The energy of the production is palpable: some times a flaw, Ritchie’s reported predilection for re-writing scenes rapidly and facilitating improvisation is also clear in his work behind the camera. Ritchie incorporates some modern media into his production as well, through the inclusion of so-called “fight porn” Youtube videos, with the creation of one forming a interesting set-piece around the mid-point.
Coming to a conclusion, The Gentlemen certainly does seem to be an effort by Ritchie to make a facsimile of his earlier success, a sort of grab at nostalgia bait status even if the nostalgia in question doesn’t seem all that old (one can’t help but note that the characters here are all much older than the main ones in his previous gangster flicks). But does this make it a bad movie? No. It carries the sort of interesting, sub-divided, well-paced plot that Ritchie excels in when he has a mind, and is quite funny to boot. Most of the cast is quite impressive, and the film looks and feels good, showcasing a certain degree of evolution when it comes to crime cinematography from the director. Perhaps Ritchie will now once again try and branch out, and good luck to him if he does that. Even if Vinnie Jones was absent, The Gentlemen will remain a reminder that he is more than just his flops, and he will always have a home in the cinema home of gangsters and geezers. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of STX Films and Entertainment Film Distributors).