After a pair of considerable misfires where British-born filmmaker Guy Ritchie tried, and ultimately struggled against poor source material, there was always that thought in the back of one’s mind all hope would be lost. Don’t try to deny it: last year’s redo of Aladdin and the equally misguided King Arthur: Legend of the Sword were both duds whose stains may not wash off instantly. When a slump hits, that’s likely when it comes time to try to revisit, reconnect with one’s roots. And The Gentlemen accomplishes just that, and then some, taking the 51-year-old back to his Lock Stock/Snatch/Layer Cake heyday. Long story short: we have missed this Ritchie and hope we can hold onto him forever.
It plays like a conversation between longtime friends who are unsure why they still do what they do. Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is the cocky Cockney maverick, a private investigator with a story to tell. Literally, he has a screenplay in hand foretelling past transgressions involving a core group of allies and enemies that he’s near closing a studio deal for. His sounding board is the barely willing to cooperate Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), whom he’s asking a £20 million from to make good for his snooping about on an underground pot-growing racket.
The ringleader: American expatriate Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), a smooth-talking rogue with a firm business plan, stashing the grow farms in an underground system around aristocratic manor property. Though even he knows he’s bitten off more than he can chew, being embroiled both into the seedy underbelly of organized crime and in a fabricated minor royal scandal, making any attempts to sell off the entire operation in favor of early retirement with wife Rosalyn (Michele Dockery) even more complicated.
It’s taken Guy, alongside best friends/co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, about a decade to make this pure return to form. His direct-from-Hollywood work had posed the most unfortunate distraction. But it was easily worth that long wait for fans to revisit that gritty, unapologetic Britain Ritchie always iconized. And they will be most pleased. Some casual viewers, I fear, might be offended a bit too easily. At least one key plot point shred had much of the screening audience cringing, myself included. Suppose it would be worse out of context, and simultaneously more hilarious to a natural-born brit who were watching, but we’ll just leave it at that.
In any case, Ritchie successfully reaffirms his niche placement as that director who’s most at home casting a talented group of actors as common lowlifes, preferably carrying guns, and muscly fists to get their work done. Save for a few spots where the action stalls out in favor of almost pointless drivel (arguments over food crimes, like how not to cook a pricey piece of wagyu steak, for example), they all fulfill their character stereotypes most professionally. Grant exudes a cuddly swagger full of quirks that sent my heart aflutter. Between this and Paddington 2, his next career stage proves hopeful. Hunnam poses the capable second banana, whose strength, weakness, and indelible on-screen chemistry are defined in rather short order, their shared presence may be indirectly dictated, by McConaughey as the film’s real winner.
Once again, the North Texan slays, bakes and bashes. Although more with clever words than fisticuffs, spitting out classic one-liners every which way like they were false teeth. The latter is kept in line thanks to Henry Golding (Last Christmas) assuming a Sammo Hung-esque third party character, the slightly exhausted gangster’s associate Dry Eye. He and his boss (Tom Wu), the only main figures to possibly complicate Pearson’s transaction in selling the farms and related milieu to a shrewd American magnate (Jeremy Strong). His presence is impossibly to really peg down. A stereotype on top of another crass stereotype, loosely flamboyant with the flair of a half-empty radicalist. His is a small throwaway, to be trounced upon by his equal, and wife Rosie, the garage owner with her own nitpicky clientele. Add to the mix close counterpart Coach (Colin Farrell, reinstating his thickest possible Irish brogue), a boxing gym proprietor whose annoying punk student thieves little to the imagination, and there it becomes a party.
If nothing else beyond its impressive casting, and a script that won’t necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already invested time and effort into Ritchie’s past works, the man wastes none in oozing a metric ton of authentic British style. Due in part to Alan Stewart’s (Aladdin) picturesque cinematography, and Michael Wilkinson’s (American Hustle) vintage-yet-modernly-functional fashion sense, a timeless quality is proudly invoked (think the aesthetic of Gambit-era Michael Caine) whilst unafraid to maintain a current sense of identity (not unlike Ritchie’s improving-with-age imagery of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Best of both worlds, an expectation met if not briefly surpassed when the substance falls short.
Ritchie’s overall reputation as a director will have been permanently altered after his past decade’s track record, having taken one too many safe bets with varying degrees of critical appreciation and box office success. Neither will have merged together across any of his work in the 2010s. One can only maintain hope The Gentlemen is not just a fun watch, and certainly, for me it’s one I’ll come back to with a certain frequency, that it can be a fresh start for ol’ Guy. One where he can stay firm to his comfort zone while leaving a little space for risk-taking here and there.
With a strong ensemble cast to back his often-silly, wild, offensive, fun-loving yarn, I’m sure we won’t need to contend with rating-safe, studio-friendly fare that does nothing more than underwhelm in every category in his otherwise talented and capable hands. Gentlemen brings us back to an era of film thought lost in time and to a filmmaker responsible for solidifying that era in celluloid. We may have grown up, doesn’t mean some films have to. Ritchie has once more proved that to be very, very true. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Gentlemen opens in wide release this weekend; rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content; 113 minutes.