What does it mean to be a Guy Ritchie film? Around the turn of the century, that would’ve been an easy question. Ritchie stood as a kind of English Quentin Tarantino, creating kinetic crime thrillers about blue-collar criminals, London nativism, and the idea that no actor – no matter how famous – is safe onscreen. But that Guy Ritchie is far removed from the filmmaker behind 2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and 2019’s “Aladdin.” Perhaps this is why he tackled a film like “The Gentlemen,” one that hews much closer to his late-nineties crime thrillers. Sometimes, for better and worse, you need to remind people what made you famous in the first place.
Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) has a problem. By surviving into middle age, Pearson is in the privileged position of being able to set the conditions of his retirement from the drug trade, but the fact that he’s considering retiring is taken as a sign of weakness from rival London enterprises. This makes him the focus of Dry Eye (Henry Golding), an ambitious Chinese gangster looking to expand his share of London’s drug scene. It also draws the attention of Spencer (Hugh Grant), a private detective hired by a local media personality to dig up proof of Pearson’s illegal activities – but who decides he’d rather strongarm Pearson’s consigliere Matthew (Charlie Hunnam) instead.
We follow these various threads – in typical non-linear Ritchie fashion – as Spencer unfolds Pearson’s history to prove that he is clever enough to be taken seriously as a blackmailer. Through a series of flashbacks, Spencer details Pearson’s initial attempts to cleanly move out of the marijuana business. We watch the war that is kicked off when he pushes back against Dry Eye’s attempts to recruit him and the various misadventures of Matthew as he runs around the countryside, threatening foot soldiers and running errands for Pearson’s aristocratic silent partners. As we’ve learned in films like “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” there’s always, always a bigger fish.
Ritchie is now in his third decade of making films about working-class criminals. To his credit, “The Gentlemen” reflects this passage of time. McConaughey’s Pearson has positioned his marijuana empire to thrive in the years that will follow the drug’s legalization. During his sales pitch to American businessman Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), Pearson points out that it took 15 years for distilleries to meet the demand for legal alcohol after Prohibition ended. He envisions a similar transitional period, one where a legitimate businessman can establish a stranglehold on the market – and he is anything but a “legitimate” businessman.
One of several Good Ideas floating about in “The Gentlemen” is how gangsters are an outdated concept. The world Pearson occupies is complicated by the businessmen who recognize an untapped market. Ritchie also takes some decidedly British shots at the nobility, centering Pearson’s distribution network around a series of dilapidated estates. British lords and ladies are all rich in land and poor in cash, he explains, and Ritchie’s depiction of his country’s empty titles is one of the film’s most scathing bits.
But if Ritchie gains points for finding a capitalistic angle for his usual gangster tropes, he loses them for trotting out tired homophobic and racist jokes. Perhaps Pearson’s men are allowed to be politically incorrect, but much of the “humor” in the film operates at a structural level. It’s not a coincidence that the only people who are characterized as sexual predators are Spencer and Dry Eye; this is a very fundamental way of demonstrating that these characters are Other and therefore Less Than Us. In short, they’re offensive, they’re unfunny, and they instantly make the film seem hopelessly dated, despite the modern flourishes found throughout the narrative.
Oh, and the film’s misplaced humor also wastes a startlingly good performance from Henry Golding, who otherwise seems to be relishing the opportunity to play against his newfound leading-man image. In fact, there really is no shortage of good performances in “The Gentlemen,” a fact that will make the difference for most people who watch the film. McConaughey may be covering familiar territory, but “The Gentlemen” proves that he will have a place in the crime genre well into the back half of his acting career. Colin Farrell also shines in a smaller role, playing the kind of well-meaning man of violence that helped resurrect his career after “In Bruges.” The only true miss in the entire cast is Strong, who seems to have never watched a Guy Ritchie movie in his life and has no clue how to balance McConaughey’s complete ease with the material. From his first moments on the screen, it’s obvious that he’s on a very different wavelength than the rest of the cast.
In the end, it’s hard not to watch “The Gentlemen” and think of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Like Scorsese, Ritchie returns to the world of organized crime for a film that seems destined to appeal to his diehard fans. Like Scorsese, too, Ritchie tries to explore what happens when you live long enough to watch everyone around you succumb to violence. If Ritchie had been willing to reflect on his relationship to his own body of work a bit more – the tropes of British gangster films that he himself helped create – then perhaps “The Gentlemen” could’ve found that next gear that would’ve made it something truly special. Instead, Ritchie’s film proves he might be best served by walking away from the genre entirely. [C]