The Gentlemen marks a return to theme and largely to form for mockney movie auteur Guy Ritchie. Having recently produced the widely-panned King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and an underwhelming adaptation of Aladdin, Ritchie has now returned to the gangster comedy genre in which he made his name, a realm where he is evidently more comfortable.
That is not to say that The Gentlemen is any less fantastical than those efforts. Ritchie’s world, as seen in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, is populated by an improbable melange of aristocrats, criminals, tabloid journalists and pugilists, with a couple of American billionaires thrown in. The film’s action and dialogue are frequently absurd, but that’s besides the point: this is, for all its faults, an extremely fun film.
In a largely successful framing device, the story is narrated by Hugh Grant’s Fletcher, a private investigator who has written a screenplay about the film’s events and is relaying the information to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), the right-hand-man of cannabis kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who is attempting to sell off his empire. Grant might just be the film’s highlight, playing hilariously against type as a geezer-voiced sleazeball, by turns ridiculous and sinister, spitting his lines out with camp relish.
Because Fletcher is hardly the most reliable of narrators, The Gentlemen takes a while to set out its narrative stall, and the constant prolepsis, analepsis and oh-wait-that-didn’t-happen backtracks only really make sense after the film’s first half hour. Following that disappointing start, things really pick up, as we’re introduced to a cast of characters to fill a phonebook, boasting names like Dry Eye and Big Dave.
Colin Farrell is excellent, and certainly underused, as a boxing coach with criminal tendencies, his sing-song Irish brogue a perfect match for Ritchie’s witty, rapid dialogue. Less watchable are Eddie Marsan’s villainous newspaper editor, a character who seems to have wandered in from a ‘70s B-movie, and Jeremy Strong, rightly lauded for his performance in HBO drama Succession, whose depiction of the American businessman attempting to purchase Mickey’s stocks seems out of place here. Strong delivers his lines hesitantly, as if they are being fed through a malfunctioning ear-piece, and cannot keep up with the brisk requirements of the script.
Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, the film is short on meaningful female roles. Michelle Dockery is solid as Mickey’s hard-nosed wife, but toughness does not equate to layered characterisation, and this is fundamentally a flick for the blokes. Minority groups don’t receive much fair treatment from The Gentlemen, either. Jokes at the expense of Jewish, gay, and particularly Asian characters seem a little gratuitous, and it is no coincidence that these figures serve as the antagonists of the film.
It is difficult to look past the casual racism and generally reactionary worldview of The Gentlemen, which has to shoehorn in references to Brexit and drill music to remind us that we are in 2020, and not the period, twenty years ago, when Ritchie’s films felt urgent and fresh. Whether shots mimicking superior films like The Long Good Friday and Pulp Fiction are examples of homage or theft depends on the opinion of the viewer, but it cannot be denied that The Gentlemen can often seem formulaic.
For all its lack of originality, the film still proves an enjoyable way to spend just under two hours. A subplot involving a porcine sex tape and a scene exploring the comedic possibilities of the name Phuc are tangential to the main storyline, but offer the biggest laughs of a film which is still pretty satisfying. Maybe not if you’re Chinese, though.
Image: Liberal Democrats via Flickr