It sure can be fascinating to look at the ebbs and flows of a director’s career. Everyone’s going to have highs and lows, periods of creative growth and relatively creatively fallow periods. And when there’s a director whose work you’ve generally liked in the past, and they find themselves in a fallow period, you can kind of grow a bit frustrated, hoping that they will figure their shit out and get back to basics, make the kind of movies they made that made you love them in the first place. And, obviously, I’m bringing all of this up because there’s a new film in theaters by none other than Guy Ritchie, a director who has certainly been in a fallow period lately. Ritchie came to prominence with a series of British gangster movies, full of violence, profanity, and a cheeky sense of humor. But, the last decade has been a very strange time for Guy Ritchie. He swerved into a very different genre making the two Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, both of which I quite enjoy, and then a campy spy homage with The Man From UNCLE, which I also found myself enjoying. They were certainly strange choices, but by and large they worked. Then he seemed to go off the deep end a bit. I know there are some fans of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but that movie is just kind of a fascinating catastrophe to me. He then followed that up with just a straight up catastrophe, Aladdin! It seemed easy to discount Ritchie as a director who has lost his way. But, out of nowhere, he went back to his roots and has given us a film that certainly feels like an attempt to recapture his past successes in the world of the British Gangster flick, the Gentlemen. And, it’s weird!
The Gentlemen is largely the story of a power struggle between the various organizations trying to control the marijuana market in the United Kingdom. It’s mostly told from the lens of a shady private eye named Fletcher as he explains everything he’s learned to a man named Raymond, attempting to get a twenty-million pound bribe from him. Raymond works for Mickey Pearson, an American-born marijuana kingpin who runs all drug-running in the country thanks to his impressive infrastructure, which involves bribing various struggling lords and ladies to host massive hydroponic farms under their lands. But, Pearson feels his age catching up with him, and has decided to leave the game behind, seeking to sell his empire to a fellow American, a billionaire named Matthew Berger with the understanding that he could then turn the empire into a more legitimate one once marijuana is legalized. However, things get a little complicated when another potential buyer arrives, an under-boss for a powerful Chinese gang known as Dry Eye. Dry Eye attempts to buy Pearson’s organization, but is quickly rejected. And, shorty after, a group of skilled fighters arrive at one of Pearson’s farms, and rob the place all while filming it. The boxers had been given a tip, and end up bringing their spoils back to their coach, an enigmatic man simply known as Coach, who is sure that something bad is going to happen to them now that they’ve accidentally stolen a bunch of product from the most power drug dealer in the country.
And, that fear ends up causing Coach to reach out to Raymond, who is busy dealing with a completely disastrous attempt to save a lord’s daughter from a junkie house, hoping to apologize to Pearson. Coach brings the man who gave them the tip, who ends up being a subordinate of Dry Eyes, making Raymond assume that Dry Eyes is trying to take down their operation after being snubbed. But, it turns out that things are far more extreme than that. Because Dry Eyes is actually working for Berger, under the assumption that he would help run the criminal side of things. But, that taste of power led Dry Eyes to stage a coup within his own gang, and then attempt to cut Berger out of the equation so he could run everything. However, Dry Ends ends up overplaying his hand, and ends up getting killed by Pearson. Pearson then gets revenge on Berger, forcing him to pay millions as compensation for the whole thing, while also not giving him any control of his empire. He also gets revenge on the newspaperman who first put Fletcher on the track of this whole thing. Fletcher assumes that he’s been able to give Raymond all the evidence to spoil the deal with Berger, but they actually already knew everything, until it becomes evident that Fletcher also sold information about their entire operation to some Russian gangsters, one of whom had a child Raymond accidentally killed earlier. The Russian attempt to retaliate, but Coach is able to pay off further debts by saving Raymond and Pearson, putting them on the path to continue their control of the British marijuana industry, while Raymond gets some revenge on Fletcher after he attempts to sell this whole story to Guy Ritchie himself.
By and large I found myself enjoying the Gentlemen. From when it was first announced, I was excited. I love Ritchie’s earlier gangster flicks, and seeing him go back to what he does best seemed like just the move he needed to make. And, the inclusion of an absolutely fantastic cast certainly didn’t help. And, overall, everyone is great in the movie. I love this bizarre later phase of Hugh Grant’s career where he’s completely unafraid to lean into weirdo character roles, and he knocks it out of the park as Fletcher. Likewise, I love Colin Farrel getting the chance to be a weirdo, and he also does that terrifically in this film. I’ve generally never been a big fan of Charlie Hunnam, but I actually think he ends up stealing the entire show in this movie, showing that Ritchie is one of the few directors who lets him take chances. Which, also ends up being my takeaway of Henry Golding, an actor who I’ve previously only ever seen in roles that essentially just call for him to be nice and handsome, and it’s a treat to actually see him be given a character here. I really enjoyed what little Michelle Dockery was given to do as well, getting to play with a at times tragically underwritten character. And, as always, Matthew McConaughey is fantastic. It’s a fun, dumb gangster movie full of absurd characters, hilarious dialogue, and slapstick action. It’s solid. But, it also has its fair share of problems which ultimately weigh it down.
It’s very clear that Ritchie sought out to make a film akin to Snatch, something to recapture the magic of his early career. But, this movie is a very good example of why it’s very hard to go home again, especially after literal decades have passed. Ritchie just isn’t the filmmaker he was when he made Snatch, and the overall style of this film generally shows that he’s become a far less adventurous filmmaker. It’s not that this film is badly made or shot, it’s just kind of workmanlike, which is a shame considering how strange his earlier films looked and felt. He’s playing it more safely here, while doubling down on his own strengths and weaknesses. He’s really good at writing charmingly scummy gangsters standing around in rooms insulting each other. But, he also has some very antiquated notions of how all of that should sound. The movie is getting hit, rightfully so, for it’s very out of place and casual racism, particularly what’s being thrown out at the Dry Eyes character. There’s just a lot of tired, frankly distracting racist jokes sprinkled all throughout the film, and it just makes the whole thing seem dated. Now, I don’t think that a bunch of dumb British gangsters are exactly going to be the wokest people in the world, and if these characters actually existed, they’d probably be even more racist. I also get that depiction doesn’t necessarily mean endorsement, and that Guy Ritchie probably isn’t actually racist against Asians, but it also just feels unnecessary. It could all be lifted right out of the movie, and it would be better for it. But, it’s the type of thing that flew “back in the day,” and it just adds to this sinking feeling that Ritchie ended up trying to make a movie that feels like it would have been released in the early 2000’s, but in the worst way. He left behind the adventurous spirit that made him a promising filmmaker, and instead just made a movie that felt like a middle-aged guy opining for the good old days where he could get away with shit. It’s not a bad movie, in fact it’s largely pretty fun. It’s just a bit of disappointment how much better it could have been if it had tried to be something new, instead of something that used to be popular.
The Gentlemen was written and directed by Guy Ritchie and released by Miramax, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk