After over a decade in the world of reboots and live-action remakes, English director Guy Ritchie returns to his British gangster comedy roots with ‘The Gentlemen.’ The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Michael “Mickey” Pearson, an American expatriate who has cornered the market on marijuana production and distribution in the United Kingdom. Mickey wants to sell his empire and get out of the business for good. But he and his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) soon find that leaving it all behind won’t be so easy as they face threats from allies and enemies alike. Caught up in the mix is Chinese gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding), “legitimate” businessman Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a boxing gym owner named Coach (Colin Farrell), and a vulgar private investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant).
Guy Ritchie first came onto the scene with foul-mouthed, violent gangster comedies such as ‘Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch.’ At the time, there was nothing like them and Ritchie, much like Quentin Tarantino, became a favorite of college-dorm-poster cinephiles everywhere. Compared to his previous film—2019’s ‘Aladdin’ remake—‘The Gentlemen’ clearly sits more in Ritchie’s comfort zone. Though it lacks the fast-paced and kinetic energy of ‘Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch,’ it is bursting at the seams with gratuitous language and brutal acts of violence used for comedic effect.
The impressive cast performs as expected, with Colin Farrell and Charlie Hunnam driving both of the film’s strongest scenes. Farrell‘s Coach is the most sympathetic character in the film; not a career criminal but still willing to do whatever it takes to keep his reckless students safe (while wearing great outfits). Hunnam brings an understated menace to his role that makes Raymond feel unpredictable and dangerous (while also wearing great outfits). McConaughey certainly looks the part of the suave crime lord, and hearing him say British slang like “chaps” and “lorry” in his distinctive drawl is oddly satisfying. But the character of Mickey feels uninspired and underwritten (though he too wears great outfits). Henry Golding’s character is also disappointingly under-served by Guy Ritchie’s script (everyone has great outfits).
The story of ‘The Gentlemen’ is presented through a framing device involving Hugh Grant’s Fletcher presenting Raymond with evidence of Mickey’s most recent crimes in an effort to blackmail the drug kingpin, under the strange guise of pitching a screenplay. This choice hamstrings the rest of the film by interrupting the narrative so that Raymond can point out exaggerations or falsehoods in Fletcher’s story which often make previous scenes less effective. It’s an interesting way to deconstruct storytelling conventions, but it grinds the movie to a halt whenever it comes up.
However, Ritchie does touch on one concept that I think he would have been wise to pursue further: intergenerational competition. The middle-aged Mickey feels threatened by both the young Dry Eye and a rogue gang of viral rappers in what could be a clever illustration of frustrated millennials trying to take the torch by force after seeing that an older, wealthier generation has no interest in passing it to them. Unfortunately, Ritchie seems more interested in making his characters tell racist jokes about Asians and having Hugh Grant saying a four-letter word that starts with ‘c’ and ends with ‘t’ as much as possible.
‘The Gentlemen’ is a Guy Ritchie film through and through, and that’s going to mean different things for different people. For fans of ‘Lock, Stock’ and ‘Snatch,’ seeing him return to the criminal underworld will likely be very rewarding. However, if you’re like me and never really had much affinity for his work in the first place, ‘The Gentlemen’ is not going to win you over (though its wardrobe department might). Instead of reflecting on what made him famous and presenting it through the lens of a more experienced and mature filmmaker, Guy Ritchie has chosen to merely replicate it. It’s suitably entertaining in the moment and competently made, but ultimately will fade from memory in a week or two.