Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Bill Block Director: Guy Ritchie Screenplay: Guy Ritchie Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Chidi Ajufo, Jason Wong, Britanny Ashworth, Samuel West, Geraldine Somerville, Eliot Sumner, Lyne Renée, Chris Evangelou, Bugzy Malone and Tom Wu Distributor: STXfilms
After a decade toiling in the Hollywood big-budget trenches with pictures like the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes franchise, a reboot of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and, most recently, the elephantine live-action remake of Disney’s “Aladdin,” Guy Ritchie returns to his roots in British gangster comedy—his “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” was a sensation of sorts in 1999, and he followed that up, to ever-diminishing returns, with “Snatch,” “Revolver” and “Rocknrolla” before gravitating in other directions. So “The Gentlemen” represents a homecoming of sorts for him, and those who retain affection for his early work will doubtlessly embrace it.
Others, though, will be less enthusiastic. Like his early pictures, this is a bustling but smug and very nasty piece of work that wrings guilty laughs from sudden bursts of violence, crude situations, and improbably flamboyant dialogue. It’s no wonder Ritchie was so often compared to the early Tarantino.
It begins with one of its many bangs when Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is apparently assassinated in a London pub. Pearson is an American expatriate who built a marijuana empire after coming to study at Oxford, where he began selling pot to rich classmates. He and his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) made their fortune through an alliance with financially strained British aristocrats, who have allowed him to grow vast amounts of weed in subterranean gardens located beneath the grounds of their stately manors.
Pearson has decided to get out of the business, though, and is negotiating the sale of all his assets to wealthy nerd Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). While that deal is ongoing, he’s also approached by nasty young Dry Eye (Henry Golding) to buy the empire, presumably at the behest of his boss, heroin kingpin Lord George (Tom Wu). That intervention threatens Pearson’s plan.
So does an assault on one of Mickey’s farms by a bunch of boxers-in-training who are pupils of a goofily principled Irishman called simply Coach (Colin Farrell). Coach is incensed at what his boys have done, and offers his services to Pearson to make amends.
All of this, however, is relayed to the audience not directly, but through the narration of a sleazy investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant). He’s been hired to get dirt on Pearson by scummy tabloid publisher Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), who feels he was dissed by Mickey at a posh social function. Fletcher believes that what he’s collected via his snooping can be very damaging to Pearson, and so visits Mickey’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) to announce his intent to blackmail the drug lord big-time.
Fletcher doesn’t present his version of what’s happening straightforwardly, though, but in snatches that can involve flashbacks, speculative inventions and “rewrites” deriving from the fact that he’s constructing it in the form of a screenplay titled “Bush” that he hopes to sell to the revived Miramax Studio (a rather too cute in-joke, given that it’s actually a producing partner on “The Gentlemen”—posters from other Ritchie movies are also shown occasionally in the background to provide further nudges to the ribs). That also allows for some rather obvious cinematic allusions, to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” among others.
One other plot point has to be mentioned. That involves Mickey’s decision to aid one of his aristocratic partners (Samuel West) by retrieving his daughter (Eliot Sumner), a heroin addict, from the guys she’s living with. Raymond will succeed in extracting her, but at a cost: one of the guys, Aslan (Danny Griffin), is accidentally killed in the process—a fact that will have important ramifications for an explosive finale that also explains the initial assassination attempt on Pearson.
In constructing his screenplay, Ritchie shuffles together all these various plot threads in combinations that are meant to surprise as their interconnections become clear, always punctuated by lots of raucous action and crude humor. Then as director he stages much of it frantically (aided to that end by Alan Stewart’s ever-snappy cinematography and James Herbert’s rabid editing), though the conversations between Fletcher and Raymond provide pauses throughout. Even there, however, there’s a rat-a-tat quality in the form of Fletcher’s insistent ramblings, which Grant, reveling in the seediness of the character, makes the picture’s comic highlights, and the secretly-recorded clips he shows Raymond on his laptop. Naturally, Ritchie ends things with a series of false feints and wacky reversals (a particularly ugly one involving the fate of Big Dave) that register with only mild success.
There’s some fun to be had in “The Gentlemen,” especially in Grant’s playing against type as the slimy Fletcher. The rest of the cast do what’s demanded of them with energy, as well—in many cases (Golding and Farrell, for instance), too much so.
But overall, this is a movie that comes across as entirely too pleased with how outrageous it’s being, while in fact it’s a pale imitation of Ritchie’s earlier work, much less clever than it pretends to be. In the end “The Gentlemen” is a “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” that misfires more often than it hits the target.