If not for a couple of distinguishing marks, it would be difficult to guess that The Gentlemen was released in 2020. Granted, the insistent vintage tone of the caper shows that it was never meant to be a current, up-to-the-minute crime movie, but given how long writer-director Guy Ritchie has been around, this seedy anachronism feels more like a throwback to the bad old days between Snatch and Sherlock Holmes.
More self-conscious than self-aware, The Gentlemen is framed by private investigator and would-be screenwriter Fletcher (Hugh Grant) telling big-time enforcer Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) a story in his swanky London home. The explosive tale concerns Raymond’s boss, a US ex-pat and marijuana mogul named Mickey Pearson, (Matthew McConaughey) and his bid to liquidate his UK-based empire and pocket a cool £400 million, enabling him to retire with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) and join the ranks of the gentry. However, rivals soon start circling, creating a complicated web of bribery, blackmail, and murder.
Once touted as the British Tarantino, Ritchie has moved away from this type of film in the last decade, honing his craft with a mixed bag of tentpole movies. For those of us who’ve enjoyed those movies, from his wildly entertaining Sherlock films to his woefully underappreciated Man From U.N.C.L.E reboot, it’s hard not to see The Gentlemen as a regression, rather than a return to form.
It’s not that these films are somehow beneath him now, only that it feels weirdly detached. Shot during post-production on Disney’s Aladdin, (a film for which either of Ritchie’s old muckers Matthew Vaughn or Dexter Fletcher would arguably have been better suited) the film feels like little more than someone dusting off and updating their old schtick, rather than having anything to say or do with the rich seam of upper-class criminality its premise entails. Next to QT’s elegiac Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, self-indulgence has rarely looked as impersonal as it does here.
With its all-star cast, this is more indicative of Ritchie’s filmmaking heft than his craft, and in case it needs saying, Matthew McConaughey is no Jason Statham. Players like Hunnam, Grant, and Dockery know the score, but the American stars, like McConaughey and Jeremy Strong, seem marooned when trading elaborate Anglo-centric dialogue. With Mickey’s desire to blend in with the toffs, the leading man’s off-key delivery almost fits, but it goes awry when coupled with his recent taste for large ham with a side of scenery, as sampled in The Dark Tower and last year’s Serenity.
Meanwhile, Grant plays his lisping, grasping muckraker to the hilt, serving as both narrator and antagonist at once. While we’re still enjoying his recent appetite for playing against type, he and Ritchie have gone a little off the deep end in character authenticity, maybe forgetting the George Bernard Shaw quote about wrestling with pigs, in the toxic depiction of an amoral hack. Likewise, if you reckon that the usually excellent Henry Golding might one day make a good James Bond, we fear his ineffectual, snarling hardman turn (“ricence to kill”, Grant sniggers, embarrassingly) may have killed his chances dead.
And so, it’s Colin Farrell who steps up and steals the show, playing a pillar of the community who nevertheless shows a flabbergasting knack for shenanigans when his young boxing pupils run into trouble with Mickey’s mob. Having worked with Martin McDonagh on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Farrell is more comfortable with profane, un-PC fare than any of his co-stars, but even so, his funny, strangely noble performance is the indisputable highlight of an otherwise turgid thriller.
Even if the genre hadn’t so drastically moved on since Ritchie left this stomping ground, the film is about half an hour too long in its pretentious pontifications over not only the story, but via Fletcher’s extended screenplay pitch, what a good film it would make. As evidenced in Ritchie’s breakthrough features, shaggy-dog crime stories can be great fun, but here, there’s an awful lot of huffing and puffing for precious little payoff.
To give credit where it’s due, The Gentlemen is a slick production with a couple of highly watchable performances. It doesn’t look like it was rushed out between bouts on finishing Aladdin, but that makes the dated, tawdry trifle of a script all the more underwhelming. As mentioned, the jaded screenwriter is the real villain of the piece. Hugh Grant’s character is not very nice either.
The Gentlemen is out now in UK cinemas