I fully admit to being a big fan of director Guy Ritchie’s first two gangster comedies—Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch—primarily because they introduced the world to the sly comic stylings of Jason Statham (Snatch also gave Brad Pitt one of his funniest roles to date). Ritchie went on to bigger (if not better) things, such as the two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr.; the colorful, all-style The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; the utter horror show that was King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; and last year’s live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin, which made a great deal of money. There were others sprinkled amidst these higher-profile zingers, but the point is, Ritchie essentially abandoned his slick British underworld tales with 2008’s very bad RocknRolla.
But now he’s back to his old stomping grounds with The Gentlemen, a polished, politically incorrect, appropriately violent comedic tale of criminals and the ladies and gentlemen who maneuver in their orbit. Making this a somewhat timely tale, the film centers on England’s marijuana business, controlled in the film largely by American ex-pat Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who first came to the UK for higher education and has now become the Weed King thanks to secretly growing his own product and having an unbeatable distribution network—a system that takes full advantage of British tax law and even has a contingency plan for the inevitable legalization of the product sometime in the next 10 years. But Mickey and his wife/business partner Rosalind (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) are looking to get out of the game and sell his business to the highest and most competent bidder, with the most likely candidate being another American businessman, Matthew (Jeremy Strong, from HBO’s “Succession”).
But just as Mickey and Matthew are zeroing in on a selling price and timeline, things start to go sideways for Mickey when one of his growing spots is raided by masked criminals who take out the security team with a fighting style that looks like dance moves; afterward, the raid is thrown up on the internet as entertainment. At around the same time, one of the heads of a local Chinese gang (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians) approaches Mickey with a low-ball offer to buy his pot business, so Mickey immediately suspects a connection. To make matters (and the film) all the more amusing and potentially confusing, most of the story is actually told in flashback by seedy, pervy private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam), who knows most of this story already but is patiently waiting out Fletcher’s telling to see if he sheds any light on a few unknown pieces of the puzzle. Fletcher is also attempting to sell a screenplay, if you’re interested; most people are not, but wait until you find out the plot.
Actually hired by a tabloid newspaper (run by Eddie Marsan) to generate some dirt on Mickey, Fletcher stumbles upon much more than he anticipates and is now working with Ray to see if he can squeeze more money from Mickey’s coffers. And just because he can, Ritchie includes a part for an absolutely hilarious Colin Farrell as a local boys club coach who is harmless on most days but can resort to some fairly nasty behavior in an effort to protect his boys from getting caught up in the seemingly unavoidable war between Mickey and whoever is messing with his various dealings.
Ritchie and company do a fairly remarkable job keeping this twisting and turning story straight, if for no other reason than Hugh Grant’s telling of it is exceedingly memorable. The violence is on par with Ritchie’s other more bloody outings, but what might not sit well with some is some of the insensitive humor. It might have seemed a little less offensive 20 years ago, but today will likely be cringe-worthy to some. But one of the points of the film is that these people are despicable on nearly every level and don’t think twice about jokes concerning race or gender. We aren’t meant to laugh at most of these jokes, but they do reveal something about those telling them (and perhaps about those sitting around you who might laugh a little too loud).
Of course, The Gentlemen is something of a step backward for Ritchie. But if you return to the fertile ground from whence you sprung, perhaps moving back into the familiar is an exercise in rejuvenation; it certainly seems that Ritchie and his crew of very game actors is having a great deal of fun digging their teeth into this material. McConaughey and Dockery, in particular, are positively fiery here, while Grant, Farrell and Golding are having a blast playing against type, either hiding their matinee idol looks or using them to create menace rather than make us fall in love with them. The only player who doesn’t really distinguish himself is Hunnam. That being said, there is a skill to being the quiet, stable force that the freak show revolves around, and Hunnam has perfected that role.
The story of The Gentlemen is in service of these ridiculous and resilient characters, and I had a great time watching them move through this pretzel-shaped story, despite its shortcomings. And the best news is that Ritchie has already finished his next movie (Cash Truck)…and it stars one Jason Statham.
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