Directed Co-Written by Guy Ritchie
“The Gentlemen” is a return to early form for Guy Ritchie, who in recent years has made big budget, flashy projects with mixed results, such as Disney’s live action “Aladdin,” the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law “Sherlock Holmes” franchise, the apparently failed attempt to launch a new “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” franchise, and the appallingly awful “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” But he came crashing into the spotlight in 1998 with the loud, humorous London gangster film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and followed it two years later with “Snatch,” a project that seemed much like you might expect from the writer/director of “Lock, Stock…” armed with a new reputation and a bigger budget. Both of those films introduced us to Vinnie Jones and launched the even bigger career of Jason Statham, and by the time he made “Snatch,” Ritchie could also afford Brad Pitt and Benicio del Toro.
Now, 20 years after “Snatch” established that he could repeat the magic of his first feature, he’s back to mine that familiar territory again with “The Gentlemen,” and still firmly in expensive cast territory, with Hugh Grant, Matthew McConaughy, Michelle Dockery, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, and his ill-fated King Arthur, Charlie Hunnam, all back on his home turf.
“The Gentlemen” is largely narrated, or at least explained, by Grant as scheming journalist Fletcher who’s only too eager to tell what he’s discovered about the drug business run by Mickey Pearson (McConaughy) to his lieutenant Ray (Hunnam). He’s asking to be paid not to run a story about Pearson’s empire, and attempting to justify the high price by unveiling the extraordinary details he’s uncovered. This isn’t the normal plummy Hugh Grant, this is Grant channeling the sound of earlier Ritchie.
And it’s quite a detailed story, with layers of extortion, violence, and dirty-dealing that just keep coming and coming, as we discover that Pearson is trying to sell off his business in advance of marijuana becoming a more legitimate future cash crop. There are similarities here with the recent “Knives Out,” in terms of the carefully crafted crime story and witty script, although that film has a somewhat lighter touch in both detail and delivery. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of the equally recent “Uncut Gems,” which considered the level of greed necessary to never settle for a lot when there was still the chance of more. In “The Gentlemen” we see a series of potential deals of all sizes in which people stand to gain enormously even at the initially offered terms, but which are ruined by one or more people who can’t accept a good, simple deal when there might be a more complicated, more violent, and more lucrative deal available.
This is a film where everybody speaks in what sounds like carefully prepared monologs, rather than off-hand comments. If you took “Snatch,” “Knives Out,” and “Uncut Gems” and tossed them in a blender, you’d need a splash of something like “Juno” to get to the desired level of perfectly crafted commentary. It’s like it exists in a world where nobody thinks of something better they might have said, later in the day.
The problem with all of that, however, is that it slowly wears out its welcome. The story-telling, primarily between Grant and Hunnam, is somewhat repetitive and might have benefitted from slightly longer sequences before returning to their verbal sparring. The action and the complexity picks up as the film progresses, but the delivery starts to get a little tired.
There are also a few false starts or dead ends along the way. At one point, early in the film, Pearson explains to a potential buyer many of the problems with trying to wrangle large scale land and farming operations in the UK, complicated by jurisdictions, public rights of way, and a rapid-fire sequence of other factors that tend to get in the way, including inherited estates with crumbling grand houses (which is funny given Michelle Dockery’s involvement, as it’s easy to imagine “Downton Abbey” as one of the fictional estates in modern disrepair). It’s like a microcosm of the style used to great effect by Adam McKay in “Vice” or “The Big Short” and at first seems slightly out of place. But it’s done very well and begins to feel like a sign of more to come, except that it doesn’t really repeat itself and so returns to feeling out of place in the context of the rest of the film.
Similarly, early on, Grant’s Fletcher tells his heavily-researched story but adds various embellishments – things that didn’t really happen quite as he describes them. It’s initially a neat gimmick as Hunnam’s Ray objects and then we back up a little and hear it again the way it actually happened. But it isn’t made good use of later in the film and feels a little as though there was more promised there than was delivered. And the story falters a little when it relies too much on people having been able to stay one step ahead of each other along the way. It’s not quite at the “I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew” level of, for example, “The Prestige,” but it still seems a little too slick in what is otherwise quite often a story full of amusing mistakes and errors in judgement.
Still, on balance, it remains a remarkably funny and entertaining film and is probably the most satisfying 2020 film opening so far. The leading cast members are all strong, although it’s Farrell who ends up stealing scenes in a memorable and uncharacteristically limited supporting performance. Whatever else Ritchie has on the horizon, I hope he revisits his roots on a recurring basis because he’s apparently still got UK gangster content that’s fun and well worth watching.