Synopsis: Mickey Pearson is an American expatriate who became rich by building a marijuana empire in London. When word gets out that he’s looking to cash out of the business, it soon triggers an array of plots and schemes from those who want his fortune
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery
Director: Guy Ritchie
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: When he first started out, director Guy Ritchie was able to deliver films that felt like rough and rowdy brawlers. They were British to their core, authentic in their design with deliriously off the wall characters that didn’t come off as cliché stereotypes or too arch to be taken seriously. Finding a crossover hit early on in the US with 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels he scored and even bigger hit (and married Madonna) in 2000 with Snatch starring mega-star and super fan Brad Pitt and his career in Hollywood was officially off and running.
Briefly distracted by an ill-conceived remake of Swept Away starring his wife, he found his way back to the grittier gangster pics (albeit with bigger budgets and more formal studio involvement) for Revolver and RocknRolla. That’s pretty much the last time the Ritchie who was heralded as the next big thing in the early 2000’s was seen because the director has largely toiled in high profile franchise or tent pole fare for the past decade. His two Sherlock Holmes films were fun but didn’t play to his strengths and while the big screen adaptation of television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t the sizable hit it should have been, it felt like Ritchie was getting back to what he was good at. By the time Ritchie signed on to oversee the live-action adaptation of Aladdin that was released in 2019, I think even he was surprised at where his career was sitting.
Perhaps that’s why he’s starting 2020 off with the release of The Gentlemen, an interesting return to form for Ritchie that’s a good reminder of what he can do with material he feels some affinity toward. Serving as both writer and director, Ritchie has assembled some top tier talent from the UK and US but don’t let the title, poster, or other marketing fool you. This isn’t a refined “ol chap” sort of crime caper but a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed, not always linear crime drama that often gets lost in its own maze of double crosses and deception.
After years of building a successful drug trafficking empire in the UK, American businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar) has tired of all the extra precautions and risk and is ready to sell his business and retire with his wife Roz (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop). News of his plans spreads quickly and attracts the attention of a quietly treacherous billionaire (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) who thinks he can outsmart Mickey and drive down his asking price and ambitious Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, Last Christmas) looking to make a play for his own piece of the London underworld. With the two men vying for the whole mincemeat pie, they’ll resort to any method of skulduggery to get what they want and that may involve working together…or are they all being outsmarted by an entirely different puppet-master?
This being a Ritchie film, there has to be several subplots going that will eventually loop back around to tie into the central story line. One involves a flighty (and foppish) tabloid journalist (Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins) attempting to extort money from Mickey’s right hand henchman (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) who knows where all the bodies are buried and isn’t above digging another hole for the reporter. Also factoring in the mix are a team of young amateur boxers and wannabe rap viral video stars who raid the wrong drug house and need their exasperated coach (a divine Colin Farrell, Dumbo) to get them out of a jam.
How these threads get braided together, tied off, trimmed up, and sewn shut makes for an entertaining final act of The Gentlemen but it’s that first 75 minutes or so that are a bit rocky to get through. It’s a fairly slow opening and one that is, at times, hard to follow with Ritchie jumping around in timelines which can make it difficult to track the action and the characters. There’s a smart way of doing these shifts (think Pulp Fiction) and it starts with a strong screenplay that’s well defined, razor sharp. Unfortunately, Ritchie’s script isn’t all that dynamic so even if the double crosses and twists that emerge aren’t exactly easy to identify, it’s mostly because we’ve been deliberately not given information that would have helped us piece together the puzzle. One scene has us not being able to decipher what people are saying in a key moment because there’s something in the way blocking our view yet when the scene is replayed later on that obstruction has vanished and we can clearly hear that one nugget that would have clued us in. In a way, that’s cheating the audience through trickery.
Along with a rather inspired soundtrack (always one of Ritchie’s strengths), the cast helps to sell the movie, even with these narrative blips. I liked McConaughey’s weary and wary kingpin, he’s clearly been in the business long enough to know when to lose his temper and when to keep his cool. Some may find the performance “lazy” but I found it appropriately conserving energy for the characters Mickey interacts with that deserve more of his output. I wasn’t ever totally sold on Hunnam playing such a buttoned up fellow that keeps the dirty work out of Mickey’s hands – there’s just something that doesn’t fit and I would much rather have seen Golding take on this role because I also didn’t believe him as a short fused petulant gangster.
Freed from the frocks as Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, Dockery looks like she’s having a ball as Mickey’s no-nonsense wife and while Ritchie has never been great with female characters…he at least gives her a nice zinger of a scene, small as it is. I’m torn on Grant’s fey reporter act, half horrified at how uncouth it is in this day and age to play a part so literally and half enjoying seeing Grant continue to take on roles that are a far cry from his mop-top romantic leads that made him a star nearly three decades ago. Stealing the show completely is Farrell as a tough love trainer who isn’t willing to let his young acolytes pay the ultimate price for a stupid mistake. If Ritchie were to want a spin-off of this movie, he could easily find another film story for Farrell and the boys…and I’d happily see it.
Recently, 2019’s Uncut Gems was called out as having the seventh most f-words in film history and I’d be willing to bet The Gentlemen would rank just as high for the most use of the dreaded c-word. Now in the UK that verboten word doesn’t carry quite the same weight it does on our shores but it still has a significant impact over the course of 113 minutes. I’m a fan of these kind of crime films and so it’s worth seeing The Gentlemen if only to make sure Ritchie continues to go back to making movies like this and doesn’t make a movie musical with Will Smith as a Genie again. This is clearly a world and material he has a meter and rhythm for and while the overall orchestra isn’t quite in tune yet they’ve been warmed up nicely.