When it comes to Guy Ritchie films, the mileage varies depending on where you were introduced. If you came in during the era of his early works, specifically his first two features Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000, then your expectation for Ritchie is in the more hardline gangster thriller with a bit of comedy and action. If you came in during his Sherlock Holmes (2009 & 2011) period, then you’ll expect high caliber talent performing verbal acrobatics and high cognitive feats of intelligences amidst a bit of comedy and action. If you’re more modern with your Ritchie oeuvre, Aladdin (2019), King Arthur (2017), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), then the expectation is light on substance with a greater focus on style. In short, Ritchie’s films shifted from a feeling of ne’er-do-wells and bloodied knuckles to family friendly fare with more polish than grit. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun, but his latest effort, The Gentlemen, gives off a sense of Ritchie breaking free from whatever he was trying to conform too in the latter pictures, using the polish as a beautiful veneer for some truly nasty mayhem.
Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is the leading marijuana producer in all of England, able to produce 50 tons at a time without giving off a hint of location, process, or product, making him the King of Marijuana in the country. But after a life of planning, plotting, and maneuvering, Michael’s ready to retire and spend more time with his wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), setting into motion a bidding war with bloody consequences.
There’s so much at play in The Gentlemen that it’s difficult to know where to begin. This is Ritchie back in full-form with bad guy protagonists saying “bollocks” and “c*nt” every few words without it ever feeling dull or repetitive. This is, perhaps, because he’s assembled an ensemble whose every delivery of dialogue elevates the vulgarity into almost sing-song, playful banter. In truth, no one wants to spend any real time with characters like Brick Top or Bullet-Tooth Tony from Snatch, yet there’s something so damn compelling about their characterization from the combined might of performance and conception that they are unforgettable. This is what Ritchie’s tapped back into with The Gentlemen as McConaughey’s Michael, Colin Farrell’s Coach, and, especially, Hugh Grant’s private investigator Fletcher, suck all the air out of every scene they’re in, taking up every inch with performances that never seem over the top, even at their most grand or flamboyant. By and large, what makes The Gentlemen work is the performances, from Grant’s completely unrecognizable vocal delivery and physicality; McConaughey’s smooth exterior, yet simmering violent interior; Farrell’s ability to convey paternal sweetness amid honorable violence; all the way to Dockery’s portrayal of a devoted and equal-footed partner to Michael. Henry Golding as protagonist Dry Eye is strong, giving the versatile actor the ability to utilize his comedic sensibilities a bit while also dabbling in his darker side. With so much going on, his character is more presence than anything, but Golding makes an impact while on-screen. Of all the characterizations, Dockery’s is the one undercut by the narrative the most, while the men get to have a grand ole’ time as righteous gangsters, but more on that shortly.
Then there’s the story itself. Inspired by a story created by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies, with a screenplay by Ritchie, the tale within The Gentlemen is incredibly straight-forward, but intricately laid out in a complex, time-bending manner. This is largely because the bulk of the film is controlled via Fletcher’s narration as he explains the series of events unfolding within the film to Michael’s right-hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam). Anyone else would make Fletcher’s story the easy part, a mere voiceover or bookend, but Ritchie utilizes Fletcher’s part in the film to establish a looseness or flexibility with the narrative that comes from someone telling a story. This means that there are plenty of tangents and visual jokes to represent asides. In one particularly multi-level joke, Fletcher plays, for Ray, a video he recorded of a conversation, pulls out a script, and has Ray read one of the participant’s lines while he reads the other’s. It’s ridiculous and silly, but, in the moment, within the narrative framework Ritchie’s established, it beautifully keeps the momentum of the larger story going while reminding the audience that everything we’re watching, save for two scenes in the film, is all coming from Fletcher’s perspective. This is precisely the thing Ritchie wants audiences to remember most and forget almost as quickly. Like Snatch and Lock, Stock, The Gentlemen presents a seemingly great deal of disconnected events and individuals who are introduced as the story requires and who’s coming together almost always feels both explosive and insane, even if totally naturally within the framework. Think Knives Out-level in terms of plotting and narrative organization, just with far more violence. An interesting notion worth exploring, by the way, is whether the same thinking in Knives Out, of a kind heart being the way to win the game, could also apply in the world of The Gentlemen. Ritchie’s world possesses far more physical violence than Rian Johnson’s, but the similarities in the mutual notion that it’s never the last domino falling which makes the greatest impact but the first is entirely novel and a large part of what makes both films so incredibly fun to watch.
With all the fun the ensemble is having playing gangster while the audience tries to follow Fletcher’s non-linear storytelling, there comes a problem which is worth noting and examining. In a moment late into the film, as the audience becomes clued into certain truths, a choice is made by a nasty villain among other villains at the expense of the lead female. In a film where bad things happen almost as soon as The Gentlemen begins, there’s an expectation that murder will win out where gangsters are concerned, but time and again a reference to honor or “gentlemanly behavior” is referenced. Until one of them is willing to cross a very specific line and it is the greatest sign of weak storytelling in the modern age, especially when it comes to a story involving women. While significant to the narrative and shown to be mighty on their own, women in The Gentlemen are few and only one has any kind of significant presence which is turned into motivation for male vengeance. One argument is that Fletcher is the one telling the story based on his experience with and knowledge of the situation. This implies that the violence the audience observes is only a partial truth told by a man we come to know is being as flashy as possible. On the other hand, while the audience is never really certain what the truth is because it’s coming from Fletcher, we can trust that if Fletcher is saying it, then Ritchie conceived it. So, a reasonable logic implies that Ritchie thinks this kind of violence is fair game. The trick is, it cheapens the motivations of both antagonist and protagonist, and those of our female lead simultaneously. There’s plenty of violence to go around thanks to a variety of ingenious creative choices explored and demonstrated throughout The Gentlemen, but stooping to such a generic means of emotional motivation is boring and uninspired.
Kinetic and hilarious, Ritchie’s The Gentlemen is the writer/director seemingly returned to his origins. Whether Ritchie is reinvigorated or it’s just the perfect combination of story and ensemble, the film feels fresh, fun, and wonderful even while containing a sense of familiarity. The world Ritchie’s crafted is rich and lived in, the characters true and avoiding caricature, and the dangers real, creating an overall sense of dread and concern for our protagonists at every turn. For every bit of danger that crops up, Michael’s and his men’s senses of honor and rules seem to burst at the seams while reigning them in and, in so doing, create a beautiful restraint that makes you wonder what ultraviolence they’d be capable without their code. 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service proclaimed with a wry smile that manners maketh man. In The Gentlemen, manners, above all, keep the peace, while a lack of honor will get you dead but quick.
In theaters January 24th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.