(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s version of a palate cleanser, following an extended Hollywood sojourn that yielded mixed results. Which means The Gentlemen doesn’t so much dive gracefully as belly flop into his favourite mockney gangster milieu, splashing a slew of delightfully dodgy characters across the screen, all operating across varying levels of inimitably Ritchie-defined social strata and blessed with a range of colourful vernacular as their plans to outwit and double-cross each other are in turn outwitted and double-crossed.
This kind of thing hasn’t really changed since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Ritchie’s the way you’d imagine Tarantino would be if the latter hadn’t “matured” (which is to say, started making fictionalised versions of how he’d set history to rights in a catharsis of explosive bloodshed, reaping Oscar nominations for his pains). Like Tarantino, he also revels in a wish-fulfilment vision of the uncensored, unreconstituted alpha male, epitomised by a propensity for wanton violence along with cheerful crudity and coarseness – usually entailing degrees of homophobia and racism – oh, and a keen eye for fashion.
Most like Tarantino, and the aspect often missed in his Hollywood outings, even where he has a writing credit, is Ritchie’s facility for banter, badinage and back and forth. Accordingly, the greatest pleasure to be derived from The Gentlemen is exactly that, built as it is on characters really enjoying hearing the sound of their own voice. Or rather, Ritchie really enjoying hearing the sound of their, meaning his, voices.
Which is to say, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the director’s faux-hard-man schoolyard games, particular so in this instance, having set the wheels of his plot in motion with such dexterity and delirium. Ritchie has always had fun with withholding, playing with what you as the viewer do or don’t know, often throwing in grandstanding visual virtuosity to reinforce the point (sometimes to the point of overkill, but that’s impetuous enthusiasm for you).
In The Gentlemen, he embraces the unreliable narrator device in the form of Hugh Grant’s investigative journalist Fletcher. Fletcher represents an all-time-great Grant performance, a shameless vulgarian equipped with a sneering, weasely voice and an endless capacity for the depraved that recalls Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges. Fletcher’s offering to sell his dossier on the activities of weed baron Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) to Mickey’s lieutenant Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), the negotiation of which necessitates Fletcher explaining just what he knows about Mickey, his plans for retirement, competitors in the market, and various other strands that have gone towards making the very carefully-maintained business suddenly a particularly high risk one.
Aside from being such an entertaining raconteur, Fletcher’s position as self-conscious yarn spinner, handing Raymond a script of the movie we’re watching and invoking widescreen presentation and camerawork to which Ritchie provides visual support, avoids the lazier traps of this device (come the final scenes, Fletcher is very cutely trying to sell his screenplay to Miramax, and there is talk of a sequel; Ritchie wisely leaves his best character’s fate undetermined).
Crucially, in terms of avoiding making the audience feel they may just be watching a lot of irrelevant, half-concocted nonsense, Fletcher is, largely, providing an accurate account of events, albeit with embellishments Raymond calls him out on (“Every movie needs a bit of action, doesn’t it?” asks Fletcher rhetorically, following a very Ritchie piece of gangster ultra-violence, one he just made up). Such flights of fantasy are bursting with exhilarating inventiveness – Fletcher as a stand-in for Ritchie himself – as are such conceits as persuading Raymond to join in reading out a transcript of a conversation held in Cantonese between Jeremy Strong’s potential buyer Matthew Berger and Henry Golding’s Chinese mob lieutenant Dry Eye to footage of the same.
But Fletcher’s tale is also crucially re-framed once events have been brought up to date; Raymond knows what Fletcher doesn’t, that he’s been aware of his surveillance. But then, Fletcher also knows what Raymond doesn’t, that a Russian oligarch has, with Fletcher’s assistance, arranged a hit on Mickey and Raymond. The escalation is handled with almost relaxed confidence by Ritchie, culminating in the amusing sight of Fletcher taking off over fences in the manner of one very much not used to hurdles.
After a King Arthur: Legend of the Sword that didn’t really show Hunnam off to his best potential, and a number of roles where he has been likewise less than commanding (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, Triple Frontier), the actor has been served a plum role this time, such that really seems more like the lead than McConaughey, whom we see mostly in flashbacks and who is given very much the straight man part. I found Golding underwhelming in Crazy Rich Asians, but he makes the most of a fairly standard-issue villain. Eddie Marsan is having a great time as the newspaper editor – The Daily Print, no less – out to bring Mickey down for a perceived snub, while Colin Farrell yet again proves he should never be cast in classic leading man roles, as he only really comes alive when, as here, there’s something offbeat or nuanced to get his teeth into (here, he’s a fast-talking, straight-shooting boxing coach, called Coach).
I can’t say I registered Dean Gaffney, but I did spot Sting’s daughter (and musician, although her recent techno experiments as Vaal aren’t entirely persuasive) as Samuel West’s junkie daughter. Michelle Dockery plays Mickey’s wife Rosalind (“There’s fuckery afoot” might be the movie’s best and most signature Ritchie line), established as a very Ritchie envisaging of a strong woman: no messing about, successful at business, employing an entire accompaniment of alluringly fetishised, all-female mechanics in dungarees. And yet the climax inevitably revolves around her needing her husband to race through the streets to rescue her from attempted rape.
Ritchie’s proclivity for the unrepentantly adolescent is also alive and well in the payoff to the Marsan plotline, boasting as it does some hearty pig porking. Elsewhere, Togo Igawa’s heroin boss is induced to projectile vomit cartoonish volumes of tea, and Strong – ever engaging – is promised he will have a pound of flesh extracted, part of Ritchie’s ongoing fascination with skim-reading Cliff’s Notes for Shakespeare references he can incorporate. And if he has boasted of holding the camera down this time – it’s true that there’s scarcely a speed ramp to be found – he’s as eager as ever to crack open his box of editing tricks, incorporate cheeky subtitles and employ choice musical accompaniments to his set pieces.
Ritchie’s movie was formerly known as Toff Guys and Bush; the director’s conceit is the reasonably plausible one that Mickey has ingratiated himself with landed gentry, paying for the upkeep of their stately homes and in return using their land to grow cannabis. If The Gentlemen is a less attention-seeking title, one is given pause by its similarity to old producer Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise. But with a billion-dollar grosser to his name, Ritchie has nothing to prove, which may be why The Gentlemen exudes such easy confidence – at one point, a wall prominently displays a framed poster for his flop The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – and may also be why it’s one of his most satisfying movies, on either side of the Atlantic.
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