Doubt cause chaos and one’s own demise.
It begins with a murder: out-of-frame, bloody, and a punctuation mark on Mickey Pearson’s (Matthew McConaughey) monologue about kingdoms and having to be the king when history ceases to be enough. By that he means the criminal underworld and intentionally getting his hands dirty to ensure the level of respect and fear necessary to stay alive in a volatile cross-section of gangster life. Mickey worked hard to get where he is as the boss of a seemingly impossible marijuana enterprise and he’s unafraid to admit he’s crossed the line on more than one occasion when neglecting to do so would have meant his own head. But now he wants out. Since his reputation isn’t particularly conducive to a legal pot game, the time has arrived to cash out.
That’s the engine driving Guy Ritchie‘s latest foray with his genre of choice as punctuated by English street thugs never lacking in profane quips. The difference between this entry and its predecessors (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RocknRolla) is that he’s allowed those thugs to graduate. They’re hardly the charismatically posh ilk of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but you can definitely tell that Ritchie sought to combine these worlds the only way he truly could: superficially. Hence the title: The Gentlemen. Mickey Pearson and his right hand Ray (Charlie Hunnam) certainly look and speak the part, but we can tell it’s all a conditioned affectation hiding the ruthlessness that provided the chance to originally infiltrate the toffs. Blood got them money. Money got them clean.
Except now they’re the ones at risk of hemorrhaging. That’s what happens when those of violent means smell weakness via a sniff of early retirement. And even though Mickey is acutely aware of the pitfalls that come with an attempt to escape this life he’s chosen for himself, a tabloid private detective is sitting in Ray’s darkened home to enlighten him anyway. Fletcher (Hugh Grant) has a story to tell that he believes is worth twenty million pounds—not quite chump change considering Mickey’s empire, but enough to make what he has to say worth a listen considering Ray knows he knows blackmailing them is something they won’t take lightly. It’s not until the homeowner’s first concession, however, that we realize Fletcher might have something expensive after all.
Ritchie goes full Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as Fletcher regaling Ray with what he’s pieced together becomes our narration for what his words manifest on-screen. The latter calmly smiles and asks for the point while the former grins back with visions of grandiose theatrics threatening to drag out the story as long as possible (partially to keep Ray’s booze and steaks flowing in the process). Sometimes Fletcher gets called on his hyperbole and Ritchie must rewind things back to show us what really happened (or at least what the orator believes happened). It’s a gimmicky mechanism that works because it’s bolstered by Grant’s scene chewing and Hunnam’s enthusiastically affected interest. That’s not to say it isn’t constantly flirting with complete implosion thanks to an ill-conceived meta shtick, though.
I say this because Fletcher is hardly captivating enough to earn our attention beyond how he serves the plot. Is him wanting to turn this yarn into a film endearing? Sure. But it works better as added panache to entertain Ray than as an actual desire. I laughed when Fletcher tosses a script entitled “Bush” on his host’s table because it’s hilarious as a throwaway prop. As soon as he starts dropping cinematic terminology with Ritchie cutting to glorified stock footage of said jargon, however, the joke wears thin. Suddenly it’s a bit on top of the bit of Fletcher telling Ray what he (mostly) already knows considering he’s present during much of the tale. It becomes a distraction to the distraction and does the whole zero favors.
It isn’t enough to derail the electrified energy that Ritchie fans love (or, conversely, the aesthetic overkill his detractors loathe). It’s simply enough to make those of us in the first group (myself included) wish we were watching one of his earlier films instead since it’s pretty rough around the edges regardless of the fun factor. For every top notch set-piece like Ray and his goons (Chidi Ajufo‘s Bunny is a scene-stealer) visiting a seedy apartment to procure a friend’s daughter comes two or three moments of misguided exposition dumping that lean on lazy jokes and verbose dialogue to screech any momentum gained to a halt. It doesn’t help either that those lazy jokes are often at the expense of racial and/or sexual minorities without legitimate purpose.
I get that The Gentlemen is a gangster film at its core and as such demands off-color humor, but you can’t earn a badge of “authenticity” without allowing Dry Eye (Henry Golding), Matthew (Jeremy Strong), and anyone else disparaged as “Chinaman” or “Jew” respectively to dish it back. They’re instead always presented as the “other” and as such “lesser than” by default. So it becomes rather glaring when white men continually demean targets forced to grin and bear it (those few times it’s done to their faces and not amongst each other elsewhere). To make matters worse, Fletcher’s identity is more-or-less built on being stereotypically gay and desperately attracted to Ray. Since he’s our de facto narrator, the entire film can feel like it’s one huge gay joke.
That’s a shame because none of it is pertinent to what happens. Remove those iffy bits (one overlong gag uninspiringly mocks an Asian man’s name because it sounds like a curse word) and things might actually be streamlined for the better. Maybe Ritchie would have more time to flesh out Coach (Colin Farrell) and his (reformed) miscreant wards because they arrive out of nowhere, play an integral yet sidelined role, and are vastly more entertaining than the old white men their immaturity and excitability make seem even older. With one too many of the same exact twist (Did the person we think died really die?) added on top, Ritchie has ostensibly parodied his own art. Rather than actively pursue converts, he merely preaches to the choir.
[1-3] Photo by Christopher Raphael