This weekend, the wonderful new Guy Ritchie comedy is out in theaters, “The Gentlemen,” starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, and Michelle Dockery (of “Downton Abbey” renown). It’s hilarious, but also timely, and bracingly conservative for a crime movie. It addresses everything from wokeness to middle-class liberal guilt to the fact that working-class men need a work ethic and manliness.
It’s also a fine addition to Ritchie’s charming series of modern Cockney capers, which started in 1998 with a surprise success that made him famous, “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” This led in 2000 to his most famous movie, “Snatch,” starring Brad Pitt as a comical Irish gypsy boxer, and 2008’s “Rocknrolla,” starring Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and Gerard Butler. Each suggested there would be sequels. They never came, but the series itself fulfills that promise.
The charm of Ritchie’s movies resides in the recovery of friendship between men. It’s always a group of mostly young men who face a crisis together, make fools of themselves, involve themselves in dangerous deeds and entertain fantastic get-rich schemes, and eventually have to pay the price for their crimes, if in a comic way, and come to a fairly happy end they deserve. They play with fire, but don’t quite get burned.
They are criminals, but not vicious. They have to be criminals because within the limits of the law, there really is no way to do daredevil things and have an adventure. But they also have to be decent, not only loyal to each other, but also unwilling to harm innocents. For a wild comedic ride, a Guy Ritchie comedy is very tightly scripted to punish wickedness and reward wit.
Moreover, all these movies orchestrate democratic revolutions in the world of crime—upturning oligarchic orders based on exploitation. The heroes revel in freedom and are supposed to encourage us, too, to believe that democracy works, has a heroic quality to it, and leads to good things. Ritchie invariably elevates the youth and puts down the old, which has been the rule of comedy long before Shakespeare, going back to Athens.
These movies are invariably dramatizations of the crisis of growing up for men—the twenties, before family and career responsibilities, when adventure is still a powerful urge, and the laws are to be flouted now and then. Ritchie’s movies showcase the Generation X auteur who more than any other has concerned himself with the fact that young men are abandoned of institutional social guidance, and marriage comes ever later and rarer.
The most successful version of these stories for Ritchie was “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and its sequel, “Game of Shadows,” all about Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law’s friendship helping both to become men. Yes, they solve the world along the way and yes, in typical Ritchie fashion, they say many witty things. But the important thing is that they become adults through adventure—one of them even marries. That’s the ideal.
What makes “The Gentlemen” unusual is that it’s about Gen X men of this kind passing on the baton to the millennial generation. McConaughey stars as the American owner of a marijuana empire in England—a brilliant entrepreneur looking to sell and retire in wealth. Pass things on to a new generation. Colin Farrell is a jujitsu master who teaches it to young men to keep them off the streets.
Through a strange series of comic circumstances, they band together against mysterious enemies in the first marijuana heroism movie. Charlie Hunnam, who plays McConaughey’s right-hand man, explains that marijuana is intended as a halfway between sobriety, which is unpopular, and heroin, which is deadly. He treats heroin addicts with contempt—it’s for self-loathing poor little rich kids who cannot deal with their liberal guilt.
He loathes such wasted youth not because of their upper class, but because they’re throwing their lives away. At some point during his hilarious rant scene, it becomes obvious that the drugs are metaphors for different attitudes. Young people are now too full of self-loathing and too apocalyptic to be able to act. They need help from Gen X-ers like Ritchie to learn to laugh at some of life’s suffering and move on.
Similarly, Ritchie has Colin Farrell teach the young men he’s training to be less obsessed with getting famous on social media, because it encourages them to do dangerous things for attention. Next is a warning against wokeness—one of the young men thinks one of his friends is being racist in the middle of an exchange of playful insults. Farrell tells him to be less sensitive and enjoy the comedy.
Ritchie has matured in other ways, too, which also bespeak a fatherly concern for the next generation—there’s less violence than in his previous crime movies and far less onscreen violence or gory violence. He is a long time jujitsu practitioner and he grew up part of the generation of children of divorce, so obviously many of the concerns with male friendship, strength, discipline, and making something of oneself are personal.
Perhaps chance also plays a role in this stylistic change. When Ritchie started making movies as a young man in the ‘90s, he had to please the nihilistic taste of the time. Now that he’s trying to influence the taste of a new generation, he’s got a choice and he’d rather be more popular by avoiding ugliness, not to say horrifying things.
So go see his new movie and watch his previous comedies. We lack movies about young men that are attractive, amusing, and lead to a reasonably happy end. Ritchie is the perfect enemy of wokeness and political correctness—not an angry or bitter opponent, but a wonderfully funny artist who shows his contempt through comedy and can persuade people to laugh at the pretenses and the misery the cultural-corporate left retails today.