Starring Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan
Screenplay by Guy Ritchie
Story by Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Produced by Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Bill Block
Cinematography by Alan Stewart
Edited by James Herbert
Music by Christopher Benstead
British director, writer and producer Guy Ritchie got his start in films, of course, by directing a stream of very cool, hip, modernesque—and darkly violent and darkly comedic—British gangster crime movies, including “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), “Snatch” (2000), “Revolver,” (2005), and “RocknRolla” (2008), and it’s great to report that Ritchie’s latest British gangster movie, “The Gentlemen,” marks a return to form after a period in which Ritchie directed several more commercial, mass-audience movies. “The Gentlemen” stands out in a crowded genre thanks mostly to its unique, original, inventive, clever and always-keep-you-guessing screenplay, story and characters, all filled with layers of twists, turns, deceptions, backstabbing, game-playing and underworld, underground politics, conniving codes of conduct and dirty double-dealing—all designed to keep audiences wondering just what the heck is going on straight from the opening scene to the ending scenes.
Add to this inventive screenplay an equally-inventive, quite quirky, clever and original overall narrative structure, a top-flight cast controlling their lines, scenes and the screen at a consistently high level, and Ritchie’s multi-tiered direction that smoothly transitions between gangster crime thriller, comedy and black humor parody of, well, everyone and everything at every level, and a street-cred, modern, non-fancy and down-to-earth production design, and “The Gentlemen” ends up succeeding as a quality entertainment—a great, hip escapist gangster crime thriller and dark comedy to see and enjoy in the cold months of January and February.
Of course, this genre and this type of movie may be what Ritchie excels at all along, and if that’s the case, well, that’s the case in hand. So many directors, writers, actors and producers—of course—consistently, constantly return to what they know and what they know best, and thus one can’t criticize Ritchie for returning to form and returning to the form that led to his success in the film industry. “The Gentlemen” even succeeds with some knowing nod-nods and wink-winks to the very genre that the film exists within—without turning moronic, ridiculous or turning into an all-out, goofy spoof that would end up degrading the movie. The movie manages to realistically, coolly, and believably exist in its realistic, grimy, gritty world of the modern-day criminal underworld, remaining grounded in the streets and the backstreets of the drug world, the mafia, organized—and often unorganized—crime, crime lords and anti-lords and outright corrupt real lords, hoods, thieves, drug dealers, sleazy politicians and jetsetters, sleazy businessmen, sleazy tabloid reporters, photographers and publishers—who, alas, fit right into this criminal tableau—and other assorted hoodlums, gangsters, con men, scammers, skimmers, and thugs.
It’s a Guy Ritchie-meets-Damon Runyan-meets Martin Scorsese-meets-Mario Puzo-meets-Francis Ford Coppola-meets-Mickey Spillane-meets-film noir world, and Ritchie, as noted, enjoyably, wildly and expertly revels deeply in it all throughout “The Gentlemen.” And audiences will revel in it throughout “The Gentlemen,” too–even as just about every character, person, lead actor, supporting actor and actor-extra is somewhat or verywhat despicable, untrustworthy, greasy, grimy, sleazy, slimy and even just plain unlikeable on one level and scarily, weirdly likeable on another level. Of course, that’s the same trick that Coppola, Scorsese, Puzo, Runyan, film noir movie directors and so many others have used to pull audiences into their crime-filled gangster stories and worlds through the decades. And, no matter how much you try to leave this world—they all just keep pulling you right back in.
Heck, one of the most-praised films of 2019 was—of all things, imagine!—a traditional, epic-style gangster film, “The Irishman,” from—you guessed it, Martin Scorsese. And who starred in this 2019 Scorsese-directed gangster crime drama? Why, none other than—of all things, imagine!–Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. That’s Scorsese, DeNiro and Pesci, working on and in a gangster crime drama. As noted, they just keep pulling everyone right back in.
Thus, we have at the start of 2020, Ritchie directing, co-producing and writing the gangster crime thriller comedy “The Gentlemen,” telling a violent, suspenseful, gripping and always-mysterious tale about that aforementioned rogue’s gallery of grimy gangsters, conniving conmen, sleazy snakes, lying liars and dirty drug dealers—all of whom cannot be trusted, cannot be believed and are continually fascinating and refreshing to watch, no matter how risky, crazy, flat-out insane or point-blank stupid they may be at times. But that’s the fun of it—because these are all basically dumb criminals—including the lead characters—audiences know that maybe, possibly, perhaps, not everyone’s going to make it out of this criminal web of deception alive, and part of the fun is wondering just who lives, who dies, and who makes it out alive but concurrently makes it out alive but thoroughly, completely destroyed in life, reputation, standing, money and sanity! This, of course, is at the core of all true gangster films—just wondering who ends up where, and how. And part of the fun is guessing just how violent, gruesome and crazily pleasing—in a good way, of course, not in a twisted, sadistic way–some of these possible/perhaps/maybe deaths will come down on some of these deserving gangsters. It’s not so much sadistically reveling in crime-world violence, but reveling, in a fantasya-style mode, the death and destruction of truly horrible people who, in a movie world, or perhaps in the real world, too, deserve their dark, deserving fateful fates.
And all of this is promptly, pleasingly, hilariously delivered by Ritchie in “The Gentlemen”—and, it should be noted, the violence is never quite too violent, it’s not gross, gruesome, stomach-churning or even horribly bloody and gory—most of the violence is more suggested, off-screen, rather than shown outright—and even some of the more brutal scenes are somehow handled with that satirical, darkly funny undertone of black humor. Very black humor. And there is humor throughout “The Gentlemen.” Of course, it’s never easy, even for the best directors, writers, producers and actors, to easily blend crime and comedy, drama and satire, violence and pratfalls, but, again, this is the world that Ritchie excels in, and he excels with this mixture so well throughout “The Gentlemen.” Audiences will cringe—in a good way, mind you–at the suggestion and subtle displays of violence—again, the violence is never gross, gory or too bloody—at the same time that they will laugh at those suggestions and displays. It may seem cruel and mind-warping, but that’s part of the point. Skilled writers and directors in this tricky realm are making a point—you should cringe at the violence, but you should laugh at the dumbness, the stupidity, the insanity of that very violence, to smooth over the rougher edges. If audiences are going to be presented with violence at all, they should at least be presented violence with a true, real, intelligent subset of messages, themes and morals—along with some comedy—so audiences can laugh and think about the violence. In “The Gentlemen,” amid the twists and turns of the story and plot, Ritchie manages to slyly drop in those messages, themes and morals—mainly that although these gangsters and criminals exist at all levels in the world—from literal lords and ladies to the upper levels of business, politics and the media—they’re as stupid, dumb, criminal, deceptive and corrupt as the worst, low-down, gutter-level street thug. And, often, Ritchie tells us, those lords and ladies of power are actually, indeed, literally working with and interacting with street thugs—thus making the point that people at all levels of society can be, and are, in real life, often nothing, absolutely nothing, but gutter-level, scumbags and thugs. And, since it is real, that’s an important point to remember.
And these points come through clearly in “The Gentlemen”—everyone, it seems, is guilty of something. And it’s all always deliciously fun and funny.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Mickey Pearson, a smoothly—and mysteriously–successful American-born drug grower, manufacturer, dealer, businessman and jetsetter who has somehow managed—no one quite knows how—to operate for years a multi-million-dollar, revered pot-selling empire throughout Great Britain, all the while hob-knobbing and high-societying with the mansion-dwelling, royal-titled, gilded blue bloods and silver spoon sets—and concurrently with the mid-level and street-level hoi polloi. And in between, he’s built a crime family filled with loyal lieutenants, body guards, protectors, insiders and consiglieres. Pearson is respected, feared, talked about, even honored—except, of course, by some of his underworld enemies.
Those enemies soon start to turn on Pearson when Pearson makes an ill-fated—and not-quite-thoroughly-thought-out—decision to turn over this drug dealing business to a fellow mobster, take a couple of hundred millions bucks, and quietly retire with his beautiful, sexy, tough and independent vixen wife, Rosalind Pearson, played sexily and beautifully (in literal and figurative senses) to the hilt by sexy actress Michelle Dockery. Although McConaughey and Dockery are actually only together side by side in a few scenes, when they are together, the smoothness, toughness, sexiness, presence and charisma overload the screen. One misgiving in the movie is that Ritchie should have figured out how to get McConaughey and Dockery in more scenes together—because when they are together, they light up the screen. However, once Pearson’s fellow scummy crime lords—oh, don’t be fooled by Pearson’s good looks, money, wife and high-fashion style, because Pearson’s at heart a scummy crime lord, too—find out that Pearson wants out, they want in—and they want his lucrative pot business, no matter the cost. Pearson’s retirement plans trigger a Rube Goldberg, vicious circle, domino-falling—you name it—series of crazy events that throw everything out of whack, upsidedown, dangerous, and close to all-out failure, in the British underworld.
It’d be too much of a spoiler to reveal exactly what happens, where, why, how and to who and whom once Pearson’s enemies try to take over his business, but be assured, it’s all a hoot to follow, watch and enjoy. Again, Ritchie’s smart enough to show throughout the movie what, exactly, all of these bumbling, violence-prone, corruption-plagued, dirty-dealing mobsters, businessmen, royals, politicians and journalists truly are—which is, indeed, bumbling, violence-prone, corruption-plagued, dirty-dealing crooks and scumbags.
As noted, what helps set apart “The Gentlemen” is Ritchie’s always-clever, always-mysterious story, plot and narrative. It’s never clear as the movie, story, plot and narrative move forward just what’s going to happen and to whom. The movie is certainly never predictable, and the film is always suspenseful because of this continuing mystery about just what’s going to happen. It’s the type of crime thriller and comedy with enough twists, turns and genuine surprises that Ritchie keeps everyone guessing—just like all his characters are kept guessing. That, in turn, makes “The Gentlemen” also a suspense thriller and murder mystery as well. And the narrative is clever and original because of a storytelling, story-framing and film bookending device that binds everything together, again, in a clever, unique manner. That clever narrative device won’t be revealed, either. But it’s worth noting that when a screenwriter—in this case, Ritchie, working from a story by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies—manages to wrap an already-mysterious, already-suspenseful story around an equally suspenseful and mysterious storytelling, framing and bookending device, one has to respect the originality and cleverness of the writing, the script, and the dialogue.
What can be noted without spoiling the plot, story and narrative is the talent of the cast. McConaughey displays his patented and, yes, familiar, movie-star hipness, coolness and understatedness as Pearson—but that’s how Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies sketched out the character. On the surface, Pearson’s all cool and calm and serene class and style—the better to mask his more base, common and inherent—and street-thuggery and violent—nature, but he’s still the overlord lording over a criminal, corrupt and dangerous drug manufacturing and dealing operation. So McConaughey manages to somehow combine that high-class coolness and grace under pressure with carefully-controlled, sporadic outbursts of anger, hate, vile and violence. Backing up McConaughey as Pearson is another actor gifted with the same type of character—all cool on the surface, but bubbling, boiling fire and violence just below the surface, Pearson’s number-one business partner, thug, protector, fixer and consigliere, Charlie Hunnam as Raymond. Hunnam excels as this scary, unpredictable firestorm of mixed emotions—as in, gently obliging an irritating informant at one moment and scarily threatening the worst type of violence on a group of slimy street thugs in the next moment. Even more than Pearson, Hunnam as Raymond is an unpredictable, fascinating blend of cool and calm mixed with fire and calamity. Hunnam is absolutely fascinating to watch—and fear—as Raymond.
Adding to the fun is two actors who, when paired with the right directors who know just how to utilize their unique talents, can shine in these types of quirky roles in quirky films—Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell. And, wouldn’t you know it, Grant and Farrell, well-guided and well-directed by Ritchie, who understands these actors, promptly turn in their best film performances in ages. Grant steals scenes—and the movie, truth be told—with his hilarious, nervy, prickly portrayal of back-stabbing, slimy (everyone is indeed slimy in this movie, as noted) tabloid writer and photographer Fletcher. Just watch what, precisely, Grant is doing in every scene, in every moment, as Fletcher—it’s just a great performance, all nerves, edginess, fright, bravado and eccentricity, rolled up into one scary, pathetic persona. The same goes for Farrell as Coach, an actual boxing coach and low-level gangster who finds himself somehow caught up in high-level underworld dealings and double-dealings, despite his best intentions to stay out of it all. Farrell, like Grant, somehow finds that unique mix of dark humor and dark violence as Coach. Grant and Farrell, also, don’t actually share much screen time together, but when they are on screen in their respective scenes, they shine—displaying that unique combination of a darker shine and a brighter shine.
The only downfalls in “The Gentlemen”—besides that somewhat lame title—are a few cliched scenes referencing the internet, social media, and the modern-day instant uses of phones and cameras and videos, and a weirdly-dated and cliched rap hip-hop dance number (it’s not gratuitious, though, and does connect directly to the overall story). The constant references to instant filming and uploading and online viral reactions on the internets were dated, oh, about fifteen to twenty years ago, for gawd’s sake. And these internets references could all quite easily have been completely left out of “The Gentlemen.” Again, this obsession with phones, computers, social media and the internets (internets used in a joking manner, please note) was cliched years ago—even within a year or two of these junky, dumbed-down societal problems becoming the very real problems that they are today. Whether intended or not, Ritchie makes yet another satirical point by including these internet references—noting, quite accurately, how so many people’s mentally-ill addictions, obsessions and reliances on phones, computers, social media and the internet are contributing to an overall dumbing-down, stupidity-increasing breakdown in overall intelligence, literacy, communication, work, productivity, activity, reading, information gathering and education throughout society, culture, the family, relationships and the workplace. That may sound extreme—but it’s true on many levels, as so many officials, authorities, mental health counselors, doctors, teachers, professors and family therapists have professionally noted in hundreds of news articles. So although the internet references do come across as cliched in the movie, they still make a point about just how stupid it all can be—perhaps appearing as a cliché makes a point about this issue in and of itself.
So even when Ritchie includes a cliché, that cliché even ends up making a point. Chalk that up to good writing and cleverness—whether it’s intended or a happy writing accident. Either way, audiences should take away another lesson from the movie: take more time to turn off your devices, shut down your phones and computers–and tune in to the real-life, brick-and-mortar, physical, analog world going on around you.
“The Gentlemen” does take Ritchie back to his comfort home and comfort level, and audiences will have a great time spending a few hours with all of these gentlemen and gentlewomen—the characters, the actors and the crew of this movie. Sometimes, just when you thought you were out, it’s a good thing to be pulled right back in.