Director Guy Ritchie has had some hit films and some misfires but with The Gentlemen, he shoots straight down the middle. This gangster caper, like many of his films, is a fast-talking, wicked romp that wants a million things at once.
Fascinating and slightly confusing is the construction of this story inside a story. Shifty tabloid journalist Fletcher (Hugh Grant) narrates a “script” about the misdeeds of violent U.K. businessmen and drug dealers to their close associate Ray (Charlie Hunnam), in order to extort $20 million from them. Be prepared to barely grasp the exposition in the beginning, as Ritchie exploits his signature whip-fast dialogue with quick cutting to nuclear levels. But as the story stretches its legs, it becomes clearer.
The Russian doll story construct coupled with the fast dialogue and editing does a tremendous job of concealing who is the hero and who is the villain. The shocking first sequence with Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) appears to set him up as the worst of the worst. Indeed, by his own words, he’s the king of the jungle. Yet he wants to sell his multimillion-dollar, underground weed scheme to the highest bidder so he can settle down with his wife Ros (Michelle Dockery).
As Fletcher tells his “script” to Ray and the audience, it quickly becomes clear that he’s an unreliable storyteller. Many times, a sequence of Mickey’s extreme violence will play out only for a new sequence to take its place whenever Fletcher is called out on its inauthenticity. In this way, the film is thumbing its nose at its own medium. The untrustworthiness stems from the hand that holds the pen or the camera, not the characters per se. It’s a cheeky, fun meta-commentary that takes place in a greater gangster scheme.
The film also goes to amusing lengths to poke fun at British culture in general. The first clue is in making two of Britain’s most well-known “posh” actors – Grant and Dockery – adopt the cruder Cockney accent and demeanor for laughs. Even more entertaining is Coach (Colin Farrell) and his gym-rat gang of lads all wearing variations of the same plaid tracksuit and trainers. It’s comedy of manners through voice and style that is very tricky to accomplish, but Ritchie neatly does.
The hardest thing to swallow is the casual use of racial epithets and rape for laughs or drama in the story, with references anyone can see as problematic. The film clumsily grapples at pointing out the irony of racial tropes and racism at large. For example, the unreliable storyteller must retell the truth about Dry-Eye (Henry Golding), given he’s not a kung-fu trope as first shown, but rather a first-generation Chinese Brit and son of a drug kingpin.
There’s another scene between Coach and one of his lads in which Coach explains a racial insult is not racist but more of a term of endearment. This, followed by the kid asking if Coach is a gypsy with tea leaves and a crystal ball, points to the complexity of “joking” at another race’s expense. The Ros scene towards the end, and the consequences for both Dry-Eye and the Jewish businessman Matthew (Jeremy Strong), are unsavory at best, and they instead stigmatize the idea of a man of color getting involved with a white woman.
The Gentlemen is still a stunning vehicle for Hugh Grant’s acting. He has always had a hopeless, dopey charm in his persona. But here, Grant takes the whimsy villainy that worked so well in Paddington 2 and elevates it to a more adult and brazen level. He’s telling the story, and telling it with such smarmy bravado, that one can’t help but fall into it.
All in all, The Gentlemen is a certified-Ritchie film. There’s the laugh-out-loud humor and stellar soundtrack like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Then there’s the fast-paced editing and dialogue that shifts the ground from under you like in King Arthur. It’s an ambitious and risky mix, but with all the confidence in the world.