Somehow in the last decade, noted British scumbum auteur Guy Ritchie pivoted from gritty, street-level crime dramas with accents so heavy you need to turn the subtitles on to being one of the most bankable journeymen who brought us the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s Aladdin remake. But with The Gentlemen, he goes back to the same well that brought us Snatch and Rock n Rolla. Ritchie’s fans will be very happy, as you can’t imagine two films more diametrically opposed than this and Aladdin.
Our story centers around American-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his Rhodes Scholarship into an empire of dealing marijuana to Britain’s hoi polloi. But as he reaches middle age and considers getting out of the business, selling to fellow American Matthew (Jeremy Strong) but is beset by competition from rival Chinese syndicates, who mostly control the heroin and cocaine trade, led by up and coming lieutenant Dry Eyes (Henry Golding) and also ends up crossing an MMA-training street gang trained by “Coach” (Colin Farrell) who like to post videos of their crimes on Youtube cut into their rap videos. Seriously. It’s very Guy Ritchie.
Perhaps the most Guy Ritchie thing about it is that the entire film is framed as a conversation where glorified paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is trying to shake down Ray (Charlie Hunnam), who is Mickey’s majordomo in this weed empire. Fletcher lays out the story of the film as… a spec screenplay– it’s a movie in the movie! How Ritchie and Grant managed to not to die from exhaustion from incessantly winking at the audience will perhaps never be explained. It’s cute, and it would be unforgivable if it wasn’t so fun. Grant continues his recent run of amazing supporting performances and he’s so effortlessly charming as he runs through his schtick– and spends most of the movie flirting with Charlie Hunnam. There’s an ad campaign to be built just around a bearded Hunnam and all the ways Hugh Grant flirts with him. It’s a nice stretch for Ritchie, who also punctuates this a lot of his other trademark moves.
It’s also very Guy Ritchie in the fact that his schtick which may have worked two decades ago now sticks out as, at best, problematic, and, at worst, racist. Yes, Henry Golding is a bad guy– all of these guys are bad guys– and so it’s expected that they’re going to do bad things. But that doesn’t absolve the film of Orientalist tropes that otherize and homogenize people of Asian origin, such as the fact that the Malaysian Golding is referred to over and over as a “Chinaman.” Please, dude– even The Big Lebowski knew that term was inappropriate two decades ago. One of the characters is even named “Phuc.” Get it? It’s so subtle, let me explain it to you the way the film does over and over in the hope that the joke will become funnier. Hint: it doesn’t. And a scene where Coach calls one of his students “a black cunt” and then explains to him that it’s a term of endearment doesn’t remove some of the racial stigmas. Sigh. Double sigh for the weird anti-Semitic tropes and gay stereotypes layered on Jeremy Strong’s character.
But we don’t come to Guy Ritchie expecting him to be politically correct. He is what he is, and these are the films that he makes. I firmly believe in the philosophy of judging a movie by what it is and what it’s trying to be rather than what it’s not and never could have been. There’s no way to make Guy Ritchie make a movie that conforms to these expectations, the same way I expect Sam Mendes to make exactly the movie he made with 1917.
What IS unfortunate is that Ritchie walks away from a few concepts in the film that needed to be explored more. He is by no means a feminist, so it’s not surprising that his film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test when. . . *checks notes* no, wait. . . it does? An early scene where Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s wife, pulls up to her personal place of business– an all-female car repair shop that seemingly caters to posh British women with high-end sports cars– gets run over so quickly in order to continue to the main storyline and I just wanted to pause the movie right there and live in it.
Stop drilling– you struck oil. I want more Dockery, more sports cars, now, please. That scene was so vivacious and fun and I want an entire movie about it.
Ultimately, the film is what it is: it’s fun, it’s violent, it’s pure Guy Ritchie. And that means you take the good with the bad. But for anyone who is a fan of Ritchie’s schtick and has wanted the old Guy Ritchie back, you’re in for a treat. All others? Your mileage may vary.
3.75 stars out of 5