Guy Ritchie’s became a household name in the late 90s and early 2000s thanks in large part to his stylish crime comedies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” eventually shifting gears for the 2010s to focus on more mainstream efforts including two “Sherlock Holmes” films, the live-action remake of “Aladdin” and the failed mess that was “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”. To start off 2020 Ritchie seems to have returned to his roots debuting a new crime thriller with comedy elements called “The Gentlemen” which follows a retiring marijuana kingpin in London played by Matthew McConaughey and his his right hand man played by Charlie Hunnam as competitors set sights on their drug empire. After his last few movies I’ll be honest in saying I was looking forward to seeing Ritchie return to his bread and butter, but with a return to form also comes the risk of a film feeling all too familiar. Does “The Gentlemen” serve more to compliment Ritchie’s talents or is it simply a safe production after the filmmaker’s decade of exploring more diverse projects? Let’s find out. This is my review of “The Gentlemen”.
If you are a fan of Guy Ritchie’s earlier material “The Gentlemen” is definitely right up your alley. Ritchie feels right as home directing this action comedy with many of his signature storytelling and visual elements worked in to create a well-paced, fun and hilarious overall experience. Ritchie wrote, directed and produced the picture giving him full creative liberty throughout the production and it shows. “The Gentlemen” is as quirky and amusing as one would expect from the filmmaker hearkening back to the style that make “Lock Stock…” and “Snatch” British crime classics. While it’s always important for artists to challenge themselves, sometimes it’s just nice to see a director do what he does best and Ritchie is very much in control of his craft here making “The Gentlemen” a welcome return to form.
However, with that said the familiarity of “The Gentlemen” may also be its biggest weakness. “The Gentlemen” does feel derivative of the director’s past successes and can easily be seen as the filmmaker doubling back to make something he knows he can create well after a few subpar misfires like his failed “King Arthur” franchise and the okay but not great adaptation of “Aladdin”. As a fan this movie was a welcome breath of fresh air with sharp, infectious writing that had me invested pretty much from the first scene thanks in no small part to some very fun performances by a well selected cast including the likes of McConaughey, Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant. Everyone feels like they’re having an absolute blast with convincing chemistry and an energetic narrative that gives everyone something to do without ever losing its way.
It’s not just the cast that make this film work though. As I said it’s also sharp writing and a fun script and story. In spite of its familiarity “The Gentlemen” still gets the job done impressively especially when you consider that it packs in several narratives at once all connected to an overarching story. One of my favorite elements of the film is that all of these intertwining subplots are tied together by Hugh Grant’s character Fletcher, a private investigator who dictates everything we are seeing play out to Charlie Hunnam’s character Raymond as if the two were acting out a movie. It’s a clever form of meta storytelling, almost acknowledging the cinematic quality of the story and even paying it off with a funny and slightly fourth wall breaking conclusion for Fletcher’s story arc in the final moments. It gives us one character who we can believe is in on every character’s story since it is his job to put those pieces together. It also justifies some of the over-the-top character traits and interactions we see come to life because it’s all presented as a story in a series of flashbacks so we, the audience, are left to discide if things are being presented with creative liberty or if what took place really was that intense. It’s a narrative approach that not everyone with enjoy, some may even find it pretty corny, but I was really into it and it added this fun theatrical feel to what I was viewing. I felt like I was in on a big joke or a fly on the wall at a secret meeting of the screenwriter as he sold this idea to executives. It’s just a neat way of telling the story and it certainly kept me engaged and excited to see what would happen next as every piece fell into place.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about “The Gentlemen” is that it does embrace some racist, homophobic and sexist ideas and language but while I can’t deny there are some questionable elements it didn’t really bother me that much. In fact there are several details that contradict those concerns including, for example, the fact that Michelle Dockery’s character Rosalind runs a garage that specifically hires women and Colin Farrell, who plays a character simply called Coach, operates a gym for troubled youth and tries to instill in them a sense of respect in spite of their drug-fueled misgivings. A lot of the racist and sexist language and content feels played for laughs and irony which, if you understand comedy at all, is kind of the point. It’s supposed to look and feel ridiculous and I think the only people who will be truly offended by this film are those who want to be. I read one review by The Independent that called the film an “equal opportunity offender” and I’d agree but I don’t think this is a bad thing because “The Gentlemen” finds humor in our prejudices and even at times challenges whether these stereotypes are accurate rather than outright enforcing them. I mean some people will certainly still be offended by it and I get that. It’s not my place to say how someone should feel about this language. But for me I found it more amusing than insulting. In fact, I never even gave it a second thought as a racist production until I read that this is how some people interpreted it. So my opinion, see the film for yourself. Be your own judge on that front. But know that if this kind of content doesn’t work for you that’s what your signing up for if you buy the ticket.
I think I enjoyed “The Gentlemen” a lot more than most people will. Many will enjoy it because it’s a fine return to form for Guy Ritchie while others will probably dislike it for its questionable use of derogatory language and stereotypes and its familiarity. It all depends on how far your sense of humor and enjoyment of escapism goes so it really is a mixed bag. For me personally I very much enjoyed it. It was hilarious, action packed, well-paced, easy to follow but still complex, and offered several memorable performances as well as a neat narrative structure that kept me invested. It is a very safe movie for Ritchie but that’s also what I liked about it. Like Scorsese with “The Irishman”, there’s a reason that Ritchie does films like this, because he’s good at it. “The Gentlemen” may not be his best movie but it’s a reminder of how good he really is. It won’t make the director any new fans because if you’re not into his personal style this definitely won’t interest you, but I don’t think that was the point. “The Gentlemen” is meant to be a return to form and a fun love letter to Ritchie’s favorite subgenre to tackle and in that sense it’s a fun and amusing ride worth your time.