Guy Ritchie returns to his roots in The Gentlemen, a fast and flippant modern English gangster tale bolstered by an excellent ensemble cast. After more than a decade in Hollywood that culminated overstuffed blockbusters like King Arthur and Aladdin, The Gentlemen might be the director’s best film since his 1-2 debut punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
It’s a relatively simple tale – and nothing new for fans of the director’s output from the late 90s through the 00s – but labyrinthine plotting machinations and Ritchie’s trademark visual flourishes are enough to keep us on our toes throughout the duration.
In a total departure and what might amount to a career re-defining performance, Hugh Grant steals much of the show as Fletcher, a sleazy tabloid private investigator who thinks he has the goods on an upcoming underground drug deal involving American expat and Britain’s top marijuana mogul Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey).
Much of The Gentlemen is relayed via flashback as Grant’s boozy sleazeball narrates the inner workings of the upcoming deal using his imagination to fill in the gaps. He’s been hired by the owner of a Daily Mail-esque tabloid (floridly played by Eddie Marsan) but has taken his knowledge to Pearson’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) in an attempt to bribe his way into shutting down the story for a bigger payoff.
Despite being at the center of the story, McConaughey’s American gangster is the weakest element in his own crime saga; an out-of-place characterization that never capitalizes on the actor’s aloof Southern charm, McConaughey also lacks the menace of Ritchie’s most memorable British gangsters. Late scenes that attempt to establish Mickey as more of a traditional protagonist, and play off his relationship with wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), come off particularly short.
But Hunnam, star of Ritchie’s King Arthur, picks up the slack as Raymond, a soft-spoken tough guy who exudes menace without saying a word. A sequence in which he’s employed to retrieve the heroin-addicted daughter of Lord from a council estate is one of The Gentlemen’s most intense highlights.
And then there’s Colin Farrell as Coach, gym trainer and father figure to a group of street-tough ‘good lad’ youths who inadvertently stumble into ripping off one of Pearson’s production facilities – and Coach finds himself paying off their debt. Decked out in plaid blue jumpsuit throughout, Farrell’s scenes are largely played for comic relief – but like Jason Statham’s hitman in Lock Stock, come closest to giving The Gentlemen a much-needed human element.
As the underworld kingpins trying to get a piece of Pearson’s empire, Henry Golding (Monsoon) and James Strong offer some entertaining if one-note characterizations that ultimately fail to convey much threat in the grand scheme of The Gentlemen’s narrative.
Robust sets and (especially) costumes, a range of always-dapper wear from the estates of Lords to the streets of London by designer Michael Wilkinson, are a real highlight, and lend The Gentlemen much of its vibrant character. Moody cinematography by Christopher Benstead also helps, and despite some initial aspect-ratio flipping, much of the film’s style is thankfully free of Ritchie’s more aggressive visual techniques.
Like the director’s earlier crime sagas, The Gentlemen never takes itself too seriously, and moves fast and loose enough that it never overstays its welcome despite treading some extremely familiar territory. By the end, the whole of The Gentlemen doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. But when the parts – and, in particular, the performances of Grant, Hunnam, and Farrell – are so entertaining, it’s hard to complain.