The Gentlemen is good and often quite funny, but it’s not a patch on Guy Ritchie’s previous London capers, and persists with some of the same tired cliches.
American criminal entrepreneur Micky Pearson (Matthew McGonaughey) has built a drugs empire in the UK by cleverly utilising the upper class, though he faces threats from another American (Jeremy Strong), a Chinese-British gangster (Henry Golding) and the press, via gutter journo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and his editor (Eddie Marsan). London based madcap and sweary hijinks ensue.
Guy Ritchie firmly re-enters his comfort zone after a few blockbuster diversions, with The Gentlemen following Lock Stock…, Snatch and RocknRolla as a London/South East based criminal comedy/thriller. Snatch is undoubtedly the high point, and the problem is the law of diminishing returns in some elements (from my perspective anyway).
I really admire the way Ritchie plays fast and loose with time, structure and plot – it’s almost a signature element of his filmmaking. His scripting (in basic plot terms) is always intelligent, and this film’s no different – we’re immediately primed to think one thing has happened, but only discover two thirds of the way in that it didn’t – a classic bait and switch that makes you reconsider what you’ve seen.
That flexibility of structure, and a quite clever meta commentary through a film script, shows Ritchie is not the one trick pony he’s often assumed to be. It’s complexity and intelligence that makes the films stand out, particularly key given the spate of utterly shite copycats Lock Stock… spawned (which often star Danny Dyer) – editor James Herbert’s clever techniques often lavishly illustrate these shifts and switch ups.
The problems for me are that he can never quite move away from “over the top Cockneys swearing at each other” as the highest form of humour. Don’t get me wrong – deployed correctly, and by good actors, swearing is exceptionally funny. It’s just here, in some cases, it falls flat – I’m not quite sure why (I love swearing as much as the next fucker), but it got tiresome.
Another tiresome element of his London crime movies is a repeated need to have characters racially stereotype, for no discernable reason. Is he taking the piss out of white British criminal idiots for being discriminatory, or looking for cheap shocking laughs? Either way, it’s just naff – you have to wonder what actors like Golding think when they receive the script.
Beyond these negatives, this film – as with all Ritchie’s similar movies – feels believably English, locations as always flawlessly chosen or dressed (whether a tumbledown mansion, a council estate, a crap smallholding complete with shipping container, warehouses and markets). Ritchie knows to juxtapose these places and show them in all their “glory”, unlike a lot of films that beautify or “grittify” everything.
Other than structure and writing, casts are what elevates most of Ritchie’s crime films. Surprisingly, McConaughey feels a bit absent from a film he leads; I’d have liked to have seen him stretch his comedic side a bit more, though I suppose as the protagonist and ostensible straightman, he’s not supposed to. You just don’t get much of a sense of the man Micky is, which means the supporting cast are doing more of the work.
The best of these include Charlie Hunnam, beared and nigh unrecognisable as Pearson’s right hand man Raymond. Hunnam often mangles accents (including English, despite being English), but here settles into his native North East, and is at turns hilarious and dangerous, a few scenes with Grant uncomfortably uncertain.
Grant is a revelation, clearly absolutely loving playing the sort of scum who hacked his phones and drove his anti tabloid crusade. From his terrible jacket and facial hair to his “easy guv’nor” accent, you actually do forget you’re watching Hugh Grant – to his credit! He inhabits the sleazeball Fletcher brilliantly, and raises the most laughs – Ritchie and Grant working together in future ought to be entertaining.
The last notable cast member is the bizarro comedy relief cameo of Colin Farrell’s “Coach”, an Irish boxing coach with a firm moral core roped into proceedings without his consent. Farrell, like Grant, is absolutely loving the chance (as in In Bruges) to show off his comedic side, and it’s a shame the Coach doesn’t have a bigger role. Again, should he end up in further Ritchie films it’d be welcome.
The rest are failed by the script or – in the case of Michelle Dockery – being the only featured female cast member. She makes a slight impression as Mickey’s droll, blank TOWIE wife, but doesn’t really have much to do except be either droll, blank faced or Mickey’s wife – as in previous Ritchie films, it’s more of a reflection on him than on her.
Jeremy Strong’s Matthew is supposed to be one of those calmly frightening, enigmatic criminal characters, but instead just comes off boring. Without any entertaining contrasts or depth, Strong only really succeeds in making Matthew seem camp (pointlessly) and slightly untrustworthy.
I feel for Henry Golding because as well as being one of the targets of the racial stereotyping, his performance is one that’s usually most entertaining in these films – the unhinged gang upstart chafing to muscle in on something he shouldn’t. The actor does well with what he’s given, but there’s still no great deal of characterisation. The same goes for Eddie Marsan’s “Big Dave”, a newspaper editor who could have been a more interesting foil but is just sort of an inert obstacle, overshadowed by Grant.
I did enjoy this, and – if you’re a Guy Ritchie fan and you know what to expect – you’ll enjoy yourself. It could have been better though, and it’s about time some of the less amusing, more predictable repeated features of these films were retired – and having some more female characters with agency wouldn’t hurt.