Gentlemen, The (United States, 2020)January 23, 2020
For any Downton Abbey fans desirous of hearing Lady Mary Crawley drop the f-bomb, Guy Ritchie has you covered. Not only does Michelle Dockery spew profanity with enough frequency and vigor to keep up with her numerous male co-stars, but she knows a thing or two about firing a gun. Of course, Ritchie’s strengths as a filmmaker don’t include developing complex female personalities so Dockery’s Rosalind is more like a male fantasy caricature of a strong woman than an actual character.
The Gentlemen takes Ritchie back to his roots, recalling early-career “lad culture” outings like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (which was generally applauded by critics) and Snatch (which was not). Violence and profanity coalesce in a post-Tarantino fashion that results in some humor bubbling to the surface amidst a testosterone overflow. The screenplay is too clever by half, with some of the quirkiness being awkward and intrusive. Ritchie enjoys misdirecting viewers in order to spring a surprise twist but that kind of thing has diminishing results and it’s used a time or two too often. Having an unreliable narrator can be a double-edged sword when it’s revealed early on that his version of events may not track the film’s “reality.”
The Gentlemen’s “umbrella story” is essentially that of two men spending an evening together to discuss a blackmail scheme. The blackmailer, a tabloid journalist named Fletcher (Hugh Grant), is demanding $20M to kill a story that details the operation of drug dealer Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) by revealing the secret locations of his marijuana plantations and exposing the skeletons in his (bloody) closet. Mickey’s consiglieri, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), has been selected by Fletcher as the go-between. He listens with growing irritation as the reporter reveals what he has discovered (presented via flashbacks, which provide most of the film’s narrative), mixing fact with supposition as he converts his observations into a fictitious “movie-within-a-movie” screenplay. This approach allows Ritchie to break the fourth wall, provide commentary on modern cinema, and throw in a few in-jokes. Some of the movie’s “meta” moments work but most of them feel tacked-on and extraneous. It’s generally not a good thing to be sitting in a theater seat and realizing that the director is as interested in showing off as telling a story.
Mickey wants to get out of the drug business so he can spend more time with his beloved wife (Dockery). To that end, he has found a buyer for his empire – fellow American Matthew (Jeremy Strong) – and named his price (400 million pounds). There’s another interested party, however: the Asian hothead Dry Eye (Henry Golding), who offers a large sum and isn’t happy with the “no” answer he’s given. He declares war, hires a group of thugs to raid one of Mickey’s plantations, and takes a decisive action to break the power hierarchy in the Asian heroin trade. When Matthew learns of Mickey’s misfortunes, he uses that as an opportunity to make a lowball counter-offer – something that doesn’t please Mickey. Meanwhile, Fletcher is sniffing around, taking covert pictures and assembling the dossier he eventually presents (with embellishments) to Ray.
The Gentlemen isn’t without its charms and, although it’s derivative, it’s never boring. The actors all do solid work even if the screenplay at times seems like something that was written 25 years ago and recently dusted off. (The treatment of Dockery’s character, despite her veneer of toughness, does not play well in the #MeToo era.) There are a few standout scenes – the meeting between Mickey and Dry Eye being one and the rescue of a heroin-addicted girl by Ray being another – but the movie as a whole doesn’t work as well as its individual parts. Ritchie seems to be building up to something more surprising than what he’s able to deliver.
The Gentlemen’s January release date speaks to its expected theatrical performance. (When a Matthew McConaughey film opens around this time of year, it raises red flags – look no further than last year’s Serenity for an example.) It’s passable entertainment but by no means a “destination” film, even for those pleased by Ritchie’s return to his roots after spending time making things like a King Arthur reimagination and the live-action Aladdin. The overpolished screenplay and overuse of directorial flourishes hamper the viewer’s enjoyment of what should have been a pretty straightforward caper-style crime film.
Gentlemen, The (United States, 2020)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, Hugh Grant, Eddie Marsan
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie
Cinematography: Alan Stewart
Music: Christopher Benstead
U.S. Distributor: STX Entertainment