The Gentlemen is, as the title may suggest, a classy film. Its material is dense, its sense of humor is dark and often cruel, and there’s enough double crosses and plot twists to confuse even the most astute viewer, but whatever The Gentlemen is presenting, it does so with style. There’s so much material to sift through in this world, particularly when certain framing devices suggest that not everything you’re watching should be taken seriously, and there are certainly plot threads and characters that seem meandering. But what the film never does is lose its sense of debonair perfectionism; filmmaker Guy Ritchie is invested in telling a variety of jokes and escapades, and the fact that he’s able to string them together in a relatively intelligible narrative speaks to his uncompromising auteurism.
Ritchie is an interesting case study amongst cult filmmakers; emerging in the post-Tarantino era of the late 90s, Ritchie made his name with quippy, intricate action-crime-comedies such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Revolver. However, instead of languishing as an underground favorite, Ritchie became somewhat of a mainstream guy, helming blockbusters such as the Sherlock Holmes films, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Aladdin. With the exception of Aladdin, these films are among the most unique and stylistically unique blockbusters of the past decade, but The Gentlemen is Ritchie in his purest form; the scope is expansive but there’s not an emphasis on spectacle, and all the shackles of conventional studio plot lines and inoffensive humor have been stripped away.
And so you have a fun comedy caper in which its never entirely clear who is conning who and which character has the upper end until Ritchie stops the show for his big reveals. Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is one of the premiere marijuana dealers in the world, but he’s considering selling his business to Jewish billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). As the deal closes, Pearson is threatened by Dry Eye (Henry Golding), a Chinese gangster who also has an eye for the lucrative business opportunity. The story, as it is told to the audience, is told primarily in flashbacks as Pearson’s henchman Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) is interviewed by the eccentric tabloid journalist Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who has been dispatched by his editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsden) to get dirt on Pearson.
This form of storytelling fits perfectly; is there’s ever been a filmmaker with the sensibilities of a guy telling stories at a bar, its Ritchie. The “film within a film” method is helpful in explaining all the details of the wheelings and dealing without overloading the exposition, and it also gives the characters Raymond and Fletcher the chance to revel in the absurdity of the story. Of course, no one can be trusted and nothing is what it is initially meant to seem, but the back and forth between Hunnam and Grant is an effective window into this world.
It also helps that these two, as well as the entire cast, are firing on every cylinder to make sure you know they’re having a good time. Ritchie’s dialogue ranges from clever takedowns of British gangster machoism to a level of crassness that shockingly made it to screen, and in both regards, the actors deliver the lines with such enthusiasm that its easy to get lost in the overall plot just for the sake of listening to the fun conversation happening at the present moment. Hunnam is as much of a straight man as the film has, but he’s got a quiet rage that makes him a suitably intimidating fixer who can also do physical comedy (a sequence in which Hunnam interrogates a group of stoners in a high rise speaks to his ability to make even the most threatening of Ritchie’s prose wickedly funny).
Grant is just having a blast here; he’s never intending to scratch too deeply under the surface of what is a stereotypical tabloid journalist, but his constant nagging of Hunnam’s character and means of introducing additional stylistic devices to the film make him an unforgettable screen character. McConaughey is also having the time of his life as a deathly serious Oklahoma kingpin, and he’s able to deliver the most ludicrously imagined monologues about the nature of leadership as it relates to the animal kingdom with the upmost sincerity (he’s also aided by an equally steely Michelle Dockery as Pearson’s ruthless wife Rosalind).
If I had to pick a favorite performance though, I’d have to go with Colin Farrell as a part time gangster, part time boxing gym owner known only as “Coach.” Coach and his rag-tag group of henchmen don’t fit the standard mold of gangsters, and they serviceably manage to shake the story up whenever things begin to become to clear cut. Farrell is an actor who naturally gravitates towards idiosyncratic parts, and his eccentric heists and strange philosophical yearnings are enough to disrupt any of the more straightforward motivations of the other characters.
The Gentlemen is so entertaining on a scene to scene basis that its still able to land its surprises at the end; some of the clues laid ahead of time end up being vital to the conclusion and some are just added to add extra dashes of personality, but either way its worth crediting Ritchie for managing to convince the viewer that everything they’re watching is important. Between his frequent means of torturing his characters and relentless lampooning of various groups, Ritchie is as uncompromising as ever, but he’s also constructed a film that is inherently self aware (a tactic that is brilliantly paid off at the end). It’s a web of crime and chaos lifted from his primary interests, but its one worth getting caught in. Grade: B+