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The Gentlemen

Guy Ritchie has had a rough few years. Yes, he built an impressive reputation for himself as the man behind such gritty crime dramas as Revolver, Snatch, RocknRolla, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. He brought the kind of authentic grittiness that superficial corporate hacks have tried and failed to replicate for decades, so of course Hollywood came calling for him to bring some of that to their A-list franchises. Naturally, Ritchie took the chance at success on a bigger stage, and who can blame him?

Alas, this resulted in the self-defeating RDJ/Jude Law iteration of Sherlock Holmes, the humiliating misfire called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the cataclysmic abomination that was King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. After all that, the decidedly mediocre and soulless Aladdin (2019) was a step up. Plus, it made a billion dollars, so no better time to cash out and go back to what Ritchie does best. For extra measure, the film was distributed by STX and Miramax — neither of which are (currently) owned by any of the major media conglomerates — and shunted to a crappy January release date with virtually no promotion.

The Gentlemen is a black comedy/suspense crime thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American expatriate living in London. He’s spent his entire adult life conquering the illegal marijuana trade in the UK, but now he’s approaching middle age and there are signs that the UK may legalize marijuana within the next few years. So now he wants to sell off his vast criminal enterprise and retire. Problem: There are swarms of competitors and upstarts from all over the world who want what Mickey’s got. And they’ll go to any lengths from sabotage to blackmail to murder to get it.

Got all that? Good, because the framing device makes this a fair bit more complicated.

Hugh Grant chews the scenery as Fletcher, a sleazy private eye who’s been hired by a prominent newspaper editor (Big Dave, played by Eddie Marsan) with a personal vendetta against Mickey. As a direct result, Fletcher has gained extensive knowledge — and documentation! — of all Mickey’s recent dealings. Thus Fletcher conveys what he knows to Raymond (Mickey’s consigliere, played by Charlie Hunnam), telling us the story in flashback while making the case for why Raymond should pay out a fortune to keep Fletcher’s mouth shut.

Even better, Fletcher is a flamboyant movie buff who conveys the whole story in heightened cinematic terms. And of course there’s always the possibility that his knowledge is mistaken or incomplete. Thus we’ve got a suspense thriller as told by an unreliable narrator. Fun!

Getting a read on the film’s moral compass was tricky. The film is most overt in its condemnation of stereotypical gangsta culture as glamorized by stupid YouTube-addled teenagers with too much attitude and a crippling need for attention.

Compare that to Mickey and his associates, who all seem averse to uber-macho flexing and posturing. They know they don’t have a thing to prove, they know some problems can’t be fixed with bullets, and they know that the mere implied threat of violence is often enough to get positive results. They speak softly, and their first resort is always to treat all parties as equal partners in business. Only after someone else turns everything sideways do they bring the guns out. Mickey has a moral code, and that’s what really separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in this picture.

Moreover, the film is explicitly clear in condemning heroin and those who deal it. We all have our vices, sure, but at least Mickey is making his fortune selling the relatively harmless marijuana. That puts him on the moral high ground above those who sell purely destructive drugs like heroin and meth. In fact, there’s one scene in which a character talks about the good old days when people would sit in a circle passing a joint, talking with each other and putting “positive vibes” into the world. When did all of that get buried under so much glorified masculine fantasy bullshit?

That said, there’s still the unavoidable fact that Mickey and Raymond are unmistakably the “heroes” of this film, and they’re just as unmistakably criminals. Most crime thrillers would balance this out in some way, giving their protagonists a tragic ending or a victory at some heavy cost, but (without getting too deep into spoilers) this movie does neither. Which brings us back to whether this movie has any kind of substantive or worthwhile theme.

On the other hand, this is a Matthew McConaughey picture. If nothing else, it’s inherently entertaining to watch him talk circles around everyone in the room, knowing perfectly well he’s going to get away with everything. Likewise, Charlie Hunnam is positively smoldering here, showing off more personality and charisma than in all of his other previous films put together. Hugh Grant is a spirited storyteller, Colin Farrell is a riot as a boxing coach grudgingly caught up in this nonsense, Jeremy Strong plays a weasel like only he can, and Henry Golding… holy shit, who is this guy? I don’t know what happened to the boring and lifeless male lead I don’t remember seeing in Crazy Rich Asians or A Simple Favor, but I want to see a lot less of that guy and a lot more of this one.

While this is definitely a male-heavy film, I’d be remiss if special attention wasn’t given to the female lead. Michelle Dockery is on hand as Mickey’s British Jewish wife, and god damn if she doesn’t leave a huge impression. Her performance here is utterly badass, and it speaks volumes that she can hold the screen opposite McConaughey at his most charming and magnetic. Brilliant work.

On a final miscellaneous note, there’s the matter of the plot. It’s a suspense thriller, so of course the film relies heavily on the strength of its reveals and twists. I’m sorry to say that there was at least one huge twist that I saw coming pretty much immediately, though at least the film was good enough to hit me with another unexpected curveball a couple minutes later. Similarly, for every comedic digression that gets an honest laugh, there’s another that drags on the runtime for several uncomfortable minutes.

Couple all of that with the shaky themes, and it’s clear that The Gentlemen has an uneven script. Still, the actors are all in peak form and Guy Ritchie’s presentation is impeccable. It also helps that the film has a timely attitude toward marijuana, and the restrained depiction of street-level crime is quite refreshing.

This isn’t the masterpiece to put Ritchie back on his throne, but if the objective was to show that he’s still got it after a decade of slumming in Hollywood, then mission accomplished. It’s worth a look, but there’s no harm in waiting for home video.

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