Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen plays with the same heavy narration of Adam McKay‘s recent work blended with the juvenile sense of humor of Deadpool and the cartoonish violence/antics/Britishness of Kingsman. It is essentially two hours of well-dressed men calling one another a “cunt” and worrying about the size of their dicks. In other words, it was not my thing. There is a classic Guy Ritchie crime film buried within this sea of modern influences and political indifference – Ritchie really wants the audience to know he is not politically correct and does not care what you think – but the problem is all the slop on top that obscures this better picture from emerging. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Michelle Dockery, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, Henry Golding, Jeremy Strong, and Eddie Marsan, The Gentlemen tells a complicated web of a story about an American expat named Mickey Pearson (McConaughey) who is ready to sell his lucrative marijuana business and retire.
Of course, nothing can be that easy. He is to sell to businessman Matthew Berger (Strong), while gangster Dry Eye (Golding) messes with his business. Tabloid reporter Big Dave (Marsan) has sent a private investigator named Fletcher (Grant) to find every bit of dirt he can on Mickey, only for Fletcher to turn to Mickey’s consigliere Raymond (Hunnam) in a blackmail attempt. All the while, Coach (Farrell) tries to help young at-risk young people find help in boxing while stumbling into this weed-laced crime story. Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Dockery) runs her own auto body shop and winds up getting mixed up in Mickey’s bloody attempt to retire. In other words, everybody winds up getting dirty in this criminal underworld and Ritchie does an impressive job building out the story. It is a twisty and detail-filled story of British crime, one that keeps the audience guessing. Framing it as a flashback and present-set story told to Raymond by Fletcher – during the blackmail attempt – is a bit clunky at times with some poor pacing as a result, but adds a fun unreliable narrator angle to everything. It lets Ritchie introduce some quick cuts, distorted angles, and shocking bits of violence, all of which blur the line between fantasy and reality as Fletcher starts to extrapolate on how he imagines things happened or simply lies.
The Gentlemen feels like a classic Ritchie film in spots, possessing an often sharp humor and a playful manner that keeps it light and entertaining. The twists and turns of the plot, the many characters, and the politics at play all keep the audience on their toes while Ritchie bolsters it with a smart portrayal of the crime world. It is all about dick size for these businessmen, perhaps not literally but figuratively. How much power one has to swing around and exactly how far one will go to protect what is theirs is paramount to the tense relationships between all the key players. Everybody always has an angle, is reading their opponent to assess how strong they are, and reacting accordingly. McConaughey’s narrations about being a lion in the jungle exude this, giving the film an animalistic basis to every counter, epitomizing the dog-eat-dog world of crime.
Of course, it does give way to some of the film’s more problematic portions. A key element of this is Dry Eye viewing men like Mickey or Lord George (Tom Wu) as old and in the way. Perhaps they are, but the way in which Dry Eye and every other young character is treated makes Ritchie feel out-of-touch and like an old man ranting that time is passing by too quickly. Many scenes amount to little more than an old character trying to school a youngster and putting them back in their place, touting their vast experience and belittling what they could possibly do. This tired approach is found everywhere throughout the film. Fletcher feels like a gay caricature written by a homophobe, constantly living in fear of a gay man finding them attractive and exaggerating everything he does to be super flamboyant. Fletcher’s touchiness, frequent mentions of how attractive he finds Raymond, and come-ons to him even after he resists his advances are partially indicative of Fletcher’s creepiness, but as the lone gay representation here, paint a clear homophobic picture. This extends to the mocking of Asian names and origins – Dry Eye is described as “Chinese or maybe Japanese”, as if there is no difference – as well as the treatment of women. The latter is marked with a thin Rosalind character who exists only in reference to Mickey, either as possibly stolen property (when Dry Eye nearly assaults her and Mickey has to rescue her) or as a trophy to commemorate just how much of a man Mickey is that he could have a wife like her. A lot of these read like Ritchie showing off just how politically incorrect he is, being an equal opportunity offender and punching down repeatedly. The Gentlemen would be far better off without these dated caricatures that too often distract from the interesting story.
Furthermore, The Gentlemen’s writing is a great flaw. Narratively, the base of the story is good but it feels like it was written by Billy Mays with a plethora of, “But wait, there’s more!” reveals extending and building upon the foundation. Twists in perspective and implausible “well actually” bits are just lazy and cheap ways of expanding upon the story. The crutch that is the framing device does not help either, with the heavy narration and frequent sidebars between Fletcher and Raymond dragging out the story, halting the film in its tracks repeatedly, and not giving the plot much room to breathe. It feels equal parts cramped and stretched out, having to occur in little blocks where Fletcher or Raymond get room to expand on what happened. The ending self-reflexivity is misguided, self-congratulatory wankery that is befitting Ritchie’s juvenile approach to this story. This sophomoric shock value is matched by the crude and vulgar script, lacking much of a purpose with its sexual references or “cunt” mentions beyond just caricaturing British speech and leaning on it in lieu of actually being funny. It is often devoid of wit, certain that saying “fuck” or “cunt” is sure to elicit enough laughs to make an impact. Misguided inclusions of excessive puking or animal sex are the type of scatalogical humor that further underscore how grade-school The Gentlemen feels. It is likely to be middle school boys’ favorite film, possessing an indifference to others and childish streak that will be right up their alleys. Unfortunately, for all others, it is hard not to see as the insipid tripe it so often becomes.
Of course, the unfortunate part is that The Gentlemen is not as irredeemable as this all sounds. Matthew McConaughey is great, playing a slick and charismatic drug kingpin. Hugh Grant, for as much of a caricature as he is, is fun and energetic as Fletcher. Its story never ceases to entertain, there are some funny gags strewn throughout, and Ritchie does well to keep the audience on their toes and engaged. However, poor pacing and a drawn-out narrative that expands upon itself ad nauseam all hamper its story. The juvenile humor, sexism, racism, and homophobic inclinations do not help either, playing like an old man ranting about the world and young people while still awkwardly trying to appeal to them with jokes and language that stop being funny when puberty hits.