I never liked Guy Ritchie much. Actually, not at all; not his energetic but forced and hollow spins on the post-Tarantino crime flick, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch. (2000), nor his tricked-out but tritely conceived and uselessly showy Sherlock Holmes movies. I didn’t click at all with him until The Man From UNCLE (2015), a spry, witty, well-shot and intriguingly diminuendo-laced spin on the classic spy series that did mysteriously poor box office. Finally Ritchie’s desire to be seen as an arch English street raconteur turned cinema hero began to feel well-matched to his confident if flippant technique. His follow-up, the even bigger bomb King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), suggested a sudden backslide into empty showmanship. The Gentlemen is one of those run-for-cover movies Ritchie makes, as he did in the late 2000s following his maligned outing with then-wife Madonna Swept Away (2002), where he returns to his Cockney gangland stomping ground to recalibrate his brand. The Gentlemen takes up the more relaxed and garrulous texture of The Man From UNCLE and mates it to the arch gamesmanship and tangy violence of Ritchie’s familiar model.
The Gentlemen toys amusingly with Ritchie’s status as a fish in ponds of many sizes and a lover of his craft, inverting his experience as a very English director who went Hollywood as he portrays a rogue Yank, Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who’s become the pot king of the UK, an Oxford drop-out who instead turned his great skills in horticulture towards growing weed and who proved tough enough to see off his many rivals, sometimes in intimately bloody fashion. Ritchie working with McConaughey feels like a no-brainer teaming as both have a certain relish for curlicues of their respective modes of communication, McConaughey’s loping drawl and Ritchie’s alternations of the frenetic and the circumlocutory in cinema already in psychic accord. But McConaughey, though he plays the central character, doesn’t dominate proceedings. Ritchie cheekily casts Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery, best known for classy roles, as Lon’on hard cases, Dockery playing Matthew’s brass-coated wife Rosalind and Grant as Fletcher, a seedy private investigator, and would-be media entrepreneur, who often works as a snoop for creep tabloid newspaper editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), but who visits Michael’s top lieutenant Ray (Charlie Hunnam) in his home with a different proposition.
Fletcher begins a long, insistent spiel in which he explains the many twists of circumstance that have brought them to this meeting and why exactly Fletcher feels he deserves a $20 million slice of Matthew’s fortune in exchange for his reticence on certain perturbing matters. Ritchie has Fletcher explicitly rhyme his own penchant for extemporising with the technical ritual of old-school frames-and-sprockets cinema spooling through the projector, craft for its own sake. Flashback a couple of weeks, as the crux of the story involves Michael’s hopes of getting out of the business, negotiating selling his empire to a fellow American, Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a rather cagier, cleanskin entrepreneur, with the promise that even if the trade soon becomes legal as both expect, he’ll be able to profit enormously from it. Michael soon finds his operations under fire from several directions, including a team of street toughs led by Ernie (Bugzy Malone), who break into one of his underground growing plants and beat up his workers, even broadcasting the footage online. ‘Dry Eye’ (Henry Golding), the ambitious and aggressive nephew of heroin kingpin ‘Lord George’ (Tom Wu), also makes Michael an offer to take over his business. Meanwhile Ray is sent out on a mission on behalf of one of the landed gentry clans Michael uses in his business, to collect the daughter of Lord and Lady Pressfield (Samuel West and Geraldine Somerville), a talented singer named Laura (Eliot Sumner) who’s fallen into the trap of heroin addiction and is shacked up with scummy hip-hop star Power Noel (Tom Rhys Harries).
The Gentlemen aims for a broad and jabbing satirical sweep as it considers Brexit-era Britain now at sail on the high seas, a locus for dirty dealing of all kinds and diverse genii of multicultural rogue, with only the local institution of a blood-minded and practically lawless tabloid press, as represented by Big Dave, imbuing any coherence with the threat of harsh reprisals for any failure to treat the local wildlife with due respect. Big Dave wants to nail Michael to his front page for plainly displaying total contempt for him for attacking one of his associates. Michael has prospered through mutually beneficial arrangements with the land-owning but cash-poor aristocracy to use their jealously-guarded estates for his operations, helping the toffs prosper once more so they can live in the proper style and so their progeny can get down the proper business of the privileged, getting high as kites. Meanwhile the local, lower-rung chancers can’t always wrap their gobs around foreign names but they’re eager to get in on the globalised action. The satire isn’t hugely sophisticated and the story, whilst given a certain snap through Ritchie’s discursive telling, proves quite straightforward, but there’s an unexpected undertow of pathos in the various strands. Michael has a load of guilt from the lethal violence he dealt out in the past, but is elevated by his deep love for Rosalind and his pride in purveying a non-lethal product as opposed to the hard stuff dealers whose impact is illustrated as young Laura drops dead from an overdose on her parental mansion’s lawn.
Grant probably has more fun in a movie since his neurasthenic Chopin in Impromptu (1991) as the gabby, sleazy Fletcher, whose narration is delivered to an irritable Ray around his kitchen and backyard as he tries to illustrate what’s been going down in sufficient detail to prove he’s worth a big payday, occasionally improvising or revising the scenes he recounts for the hell of a good yarn, cajoling and flirting mercilessly all the while. Hunnam is equally good in a cagier role as Michael’s right-hand man, capable of dishing out both diplomatic politesse and enforcer wrath, making a keen spectacle of his disgust for the very real squalor Power Noel and Laura live in even as turning his nose up at the upper class pretensions to underclass lifestyle. Colin Farrell comes close to stealing the film as a good-natured but exceedingly tough Irish martial arts guru dubbed Coach, the man who trained the teenaged braves who rob Michael’s pot and who commits to performing deeds of service to Michael in compensation once he learns what the young scamps have been up to. Dockery’s Rosalind is presented as a pair of colossal stilettoes with legs attached, a “cockney Cleopatra to Mickey’s cowboy Caesar,” a canny bird who actually proves as tough as she acts and seems in her elements running her high-end car repair shed with an all-female crew and champagne for waiting customers at the ready.
The opening credits offer a nimble unit of scene-setting, generating a mood of lushly narcotised mythicism as the main characters appear in painterly ribbons of smoke to the strains of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Cumberland Gap,” evoking frontier dramas and deceptively intense narrative workings in the cantering rhythm. Ritchie pointedly toys with some familiar twists in this sort of story, as when the gang of Coach’s lads rob the pot farm only to be confronted by a squad of tough-looking, well-worn bruisers. The more familiar punchline of this gag would be to have the old dogs teach the brats a thing or too, but instead here the exceedingly talented youth clean up and turn the adventure into an instant media artefact for the only market hungrier for product than the one for weed, the internet, in the course of burnishing their media cachet as street heroes and rap video stars. More obvious if still amusing is the gleeful subplot of poetic justice turned on Big Dave and the British tabloid world as Coach and his kids kidnap the editor, dope him up, and encourage him to make out with a farmyard sow to provide a firewall against further assaults on Michael. The resulting interlude of porcine eroticism proves so stomach-turning even well-proven hard men like Coach and Ray cringe upon viewing it and Coach notes, “That’ll be at me forever.”
Much of the narrative is devoted to this specific theme, the difficulties of trying to keep a lid on damaging information in an online and social media age, a new wrinkle to age-old business of gangland dominance, with Michael occupying a nebulous zone between criminal and celebrity, and both his foes and his own people wielding sleight of hand in using knowledge as power. Ray and his fellow goons are obliged to chase some teens around their native tower estate to capture their phones as they’ve filmed the sticky end of one of Power Noel’s pals, accidentally pushed out of a window. Meta japery extends as Fletcher includes a screenplay he’s penned based on the incidents around Michael as part of the package deal he offers Ray, and later tries to sell the project to a Miramax honcho with a The Man From UNCLE poster, whilst Ritchie stages a recreation of and tribute to the famous climax of The Long Good Friday (1980) only to almost literally offer a blindsiding twist.
Golding delivers impressive swagger in a limited role as Dry Eye, a man with a thousand-pound wardrobe and a 10p mind, and the climax sees him and some goons threatening Rosalind, who defends herself stoutly with a derringer – the presence of which in the film is so heavily and humorously emphasised as a device of plot significance it might as well have Chekhov’s written on the box – only to finish up at the mercy of the princeling gangster. Meanwhile Michael and Ray dash to the rescue even whilst weathering a car crash, and there’s a hint of strange erotic thrill in the sight of Rosalind’s gratified smile as her face is splattered with an enemy’s blood that feels like the point where someone like David Cronenberg would’ve started, not finished, a gangster movie. I would hardly pretend The Gentlemen is any kind of classic, even the minor kind. The story runs out well before the film actually ends, and Ritchie’s script fails to deliver a real stroke of cleverness or surprise to the way it all wraps up.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: truth be told I think I enjoyed the film because of its specific, superficially indolent if actually punctilious approach to business, rather like Michael himself. The deeper problem is that I often felt Ritchie shying away from pursuing some of his ideas as far as he might have. His blackly comic side still feels rather second-hand. One character comes to a comically sticky end making a break from captivity by leaping over a fence only to plunge onto railway tracks and be immediately run over, a genuinely funny-sick vignette, even if it’s just the umpteenth variation on the death of Marvin in Pulp Fiction (1994). But the punishment for Big Dave, and the rather laboured scene where Michael punishes Lord George for his transgressions by feeding him laced tea that makes him projectile vomit, feel rather less inventive. There’s a plotline involving Russians seeking payback on Michael that feels mostly present mostly to make up the numbers when it comes to a requisite number of zanily zigzagging plot threads. But as a waggish doodle executed with impeccable craft, The Gentleman largely confirmed for me that its director becomes more interesting the more he relaxes.