When he emerged as a filmmaker in the late 1990s, Guy Ritchie fashioned himself as a kind of British Quentin Tarantino. His early movies (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) were set in criminal underworlds, crackled with witty and shockingly profane dialogue, and gleefully chopped up their timelines. Ritchie has occasionally sojourned back to that territory (in 2008’s RocknRolla, for instance). But of late he’s been languishing in franchise-land, sneaking Cockney accents and bare-knuckle boxing into such blockbusters as Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Aladdin.
Now he’s back to his old stomping grounds with the new gangster comedy The Gentlemen, a ridiculously complex yarn about a marijuana kingpin, a conniving private investigator, and a gangland war in the streets of London. The film is vintage Ritchie, complete with unreliable narrators, big stars dropping in for over-the-top supporting roles, and a disregard for decency. It’s a real throwback, but I can’t say that as a compliment. For all its energy and vulgarity, The Gentlemen is a slog, a tedious and unnecessarily unpleasant tour of ground that Ritchie’s already covered.
Though it pains me to write this, at least some of the blame for this failure falls on Matthew McConaughey. The actor is saddled with the lead role of Mickey Pearson, a languid American who has risen to become Britain’s premier weed baron. The Gentlemen revolves around Mickey’s efforts to sell his booming drug business and retire with his wife, Rosalind (played by Michelle Dockery); the rivals looking to acquire his empire include the effete American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and the ambitious Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding). The supporting members of the ensemble are at least engaged, but McConaughey seems completely checked out, delivering his dialogue with less flair than he shows in his Lincoln commercials.
The Gentlemen thus completes the second boom-and-bust cycle of McConaughey’s career. As an exciting young actor in the ’90s, he gave his all in films such as Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, but eventually settled into a rut of middling rom-coms and dramas. When he reemerged with Magic Mike, gave an Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and followed up with locked-in work in True Detective and Interstellar, it seemed his magic was fully back: Here was an actor who hummed with vitality when simply sitting still, who could make a single word of dialogue sound like a florid sentence. In The Gentlemen, however, none of that dynamism is present.
It doesn’t help that Ritchie’s screenplay is framed as a convoluted series of recollections that hop around in time and lean heavily on voice-overs instead of snappy conversation. The movie is narrated by Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a dirtbag private investigator hired by a sleazy newspaper editor (Eddie Marsan) to dig into Mickey’s criminal dealings. Fletcher is describing his findings—which may or may not be accurate—to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s right-hand man. A lot of the action plays out repetitively, as the two of them sort out the seedy reality within Fletcher’s tabloid-ready fictions.
Given that Grant has publicly crusaded against the British media’s intrusion on private lives, the script carries a hint of topical anger: The most contemporary thing about The Gentlemen is that its biggest villains are merciless editors rather than violent criminals. Yet the satire isn’t coherent enough to stick, and Mickey and Raymond are so anonymous that it’s difficult to root for them. Some of the side characters who pop in—including Colin Farrell as an avuncular boxing coach—are more compelling but have little bearing on the plot.
Even if you can grab hold of The Gentlemen’s plot amid the tangle of macho power dynamics, the film is obsessed with cheap racist jokes at the expense of Dry Eye and his Chinese associates, along with digs at Berger’s implied homosexuality. Ritchie may be telling a story about unpleasant people who don’t deserve the audience’s sympathy. But he’s presented it as a pulpy comedy rather than as an indictment of an ugly underworld, and the venom underlying much of The Gentlemen’s dialogue doesn’t match its easygoing comic vibe. This is the clearest sign that Ritchie’s brand of crime movie should’ve been left in the past where it belonged. Though he still has plenty of visual panache as a director, his approach to screenwriting is miserably out-of-date.