Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Guy Ritchie made his name as a director twenty years ago with witty gangster movies about smart crime bosses and stupid criminals. In the last decade, he switched things up, finding success with bigger projects such as the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes series or Disney’s live action Aladdin remake. He has now returned to his roots with the witty gangster movie The Gentlemen. Like his earlier work, it has a large cast, a complicated plot full of twists, sudden moments of deadly violence and stylistic dialogue peppered with creative vulgarities. He fits back into the genre with ease. It gets a little too clever for its own good, but is still an enjoyable time, glorying in its complexity with a cast obviously having fun playing these disreputable characters. While I liked what Ritchie did with Aladdin, it is nice to see him home.
I will try to simplify the plot as much as I can: Mickey is a drug lord in London, looking to sell his marijuana business to a rich American businessman. Ray is his right hand, able to get his boss out of all sorts of challenging predicaments. Dry Eye is a rival who wants Mickey’s business for himself. Coach is the coach at a boxing gym who has to clean up a dangerous mess left by his students. Fletcher is a private investigator who keeps an eye on what everyone is up to. These characters (and more!) attempt to outsmart and outmaneuver each other, with bloody and entertaining results.
Ritchie really knows his way around this type of story. It is fun to see him once again navigate a world of dumb men who think they are smart and smart men who make dumb decisions. The Gentlemen (108 minutes without the end credits) is right in his wheelhouse. However, the pace feels slightly off. A lot of that may be due to his narrative structure. Much of the movie takes place in flashback, relayed through a conversation between the taciturn Ray and the colorful, and opportunistic, Fletcher. It is amusing at first to jump back to them for setup and punctuation; their interplay can be pretty funny. Eventually, the approach gets repetitive, slowing things way down. It is clear Ritchie did things this way to give us the potential for an unreliable narrator (or two), but he left us with them for too long. The opening and closing thirds move along quite well. Unfortunately, that middle portion comes off as excessive exposition. It pays off, sort of, yet that is the stuff I was referring to when I called it too clever for its own good.
One thing he definitely nailed is the brutality of these people. With the exception of one fight scene (which is mainly for show), most of the “action” consists of threats or insults followed by a gun shot. These criminals do not screw around when it is time to do the deed. The explosions here are of the verbal variety, with guys asserting their manliness, and/or intelligence. Ritchie has a way with words and, despite it sometimes feeling like an exercise, it is a pleasure to hear this cast wield the dialogue like weapons.
Ritchie has assembled a heck of a group to play his collection of killers. Matthew McConaughey is all cool menace as Mickey, a man who built his empire by being smarter and more ruthless than everyone else. Charlie Hunnam is the thoughtful, observant, Ray, who will do anything for his boss. He is quieter than the others, making him the straight-man to some odd shenanigans. Especially those of Hugh Grant’s Fletcher, a talkative jerk who delights in informing people that he knows more than they do. Grant seems to be having a wonderful time in the role, and he is a joy to watch. Colin Farrell is Coach, droll and casually intimidating. He is funny, if a little superfluous. Henry Golding is Dry Eye, a young man trying to bully his way to the top. Golding is fine even if the character is mostly a plot device. Jeremy Strong is Matthew, the rich American looking to buy Mickey’s business. He is so mannered and so out of place in this world. Last is Michelle Dockery as Mickey’s beloved wife. She is as cool as any of the men, controlled and capable of anything.
It is entertaining just seeing these actors work in this material. That is enough for me to recommend this to people who enjoy stories about strange criminals outsmarting each other or themselves. It is exactly what I wanted from a Guy Ritchie crime story. He has proven himself to be a skillful director outside of the genre, but he seems in his element here. Though it may be familiar, it is also fun to watch.
3½ out of 5
Charlie Hunnam as Ray
Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson
Colin Farrell as Coach
Hugh Grant as Fletcher
Michelle Dockery as Rosalind Pearson
Jeremy Strong as Matthew
Henry Golding as Dry Eye
Written and Directed by Guy Ritchie