Guy Ritchie’s eclectic filmography is a mixture of highs and lows, from the outstanding British gangster films of ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’ through to the monotonous convolution of ‘Revolver’ and the utter dreadfulness of ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.’ When your film’s so bad that David Beckham steals the show, you know you’re in trouble. Hence it’s perhaps understandable that Ritchie is returning to his roots with ‘The Gentlemen,’ a riotous, uncouth and captivating gangster epic with an immature sense of humour. The question lies within: does this secure Guy Ritchie as the king of British gangster films? Let’s just say, following on from the $1,050,693,953 success of ‘Aladdin,’ the man is more versatile than the king of gangster.
‘The Gentlemen’ stakes its claim from its first moments, in which Matthew McConaughey’s drug kingpin Mickey Pearson walks into a very British pub and asks for “a pint and a pickled egg”. Soon, a gunshot has been fired and the storytelling baton is passed to foul-mouthed PI Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who is sitting down with Mickey’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) to spin a yarn. Fletcher has uncovered a vast power struggle surrounding Mickey, who has hinted at plans to sell off his marijuana empire. Numerous gangsters and shady characters become involved, including Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), Dry Eye (Henry Golding) and Coach (Colin Farrell).
The structure here is complicated, with Grant playing deliciously against type as a foul mouthed, cockney, erroneous narrator. His snooping means he knows a lot of the story, but he’s willing to invent the stuff he has missed. “Every movie needs a bit of action,” he says when challenged on one imagined bit of carnage. The story jumps around chronologically and has a deliberately chaotic feel, although one that never quite snaps together in the satisfying way it seems destined and indeed constructed to achieve. Everything about The Gentlemen is shabby, in other words a shaggy drug tale.
It’s a story invigorated by its performers, who seem to relish the tactless immaturity of Ritchie’s script, which is partially comprised of verbose swearing and partially of politically incorrect quips that sail very close to the wind. Mostly, the fact these characters are pure dregs of society, provides something of distancing from the audience from being complicit in their awfulness, but there are a handful of moments that flirt a little too closely with the line and, indeed, waltz right over it. It’s a line that Grant, in particular, delights in walking, complete with an impressive Cockney accent and a parade of C-words.
McConaughey’s work is less showy, holding the film together alongside Hunnam, who delivers one of his best performances in years as the dealer’s passive, dependable ally. Just about everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to shine, with Henry Golding brilliantly moving away from his nice guy image and transcends to a repugnant cockney/Chinese mobster that is very much influenced from the Triads stereotype. Only Michelle Dockery, described by Grant as a “Cockney Cleopatra”, feels somewhat underused. Please understand, this is a masculine film and it could’ve done with a whole lot more of Dockery’s feminine wiles.
But for those who can endure ‘The Gentlemen‘s’ rather loose grip on taste, it’s a straight-up crowd-pleaser that will thrill those who have appreciated Ritchie’s previous gangster nostalgia. The plot is somewhat sporadic and travels down so many tangents in search of plot twists that it’s often difficult to work out which bit we’re supposed care about, but Ritchie covers much of that up with sheer style. Grant’s narrator is a fascinating, which allows the director to play on a completely different style of Hugh Grant. You’ve never seen him like this before, hence comes across as a treat.
This is a peculiar film, which feels as if it has been ripped directly from the late 1990s. It’s not even slightly woke, which presents its fair share of problems, but it’s a compelling look at the dark underbelly of society that pulls a couple of audacious flourishes in its final act. It takes almost every possible gangster idea, throws them all into a woodchipper and serves up the assorted shavings in a bundle which is almost a terrific thriller movie. It’s written with barbed silliness and has never met a piece of nastiness it won’t embrace. An audience can enjoy the film, but I feel reluctant saying it.
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Action, Crime | UK, 2020 | 15 | 1st January 2020 (UK) | EFD Films | Dir.Guy Ritchie | Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Colin Farrell, Eddie Marsan