Guy Ritchie can be an excellent director with the right materials. His career has experienced some tragic lows (the Madonna vanity project “Swept Away,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) and some incredible highs. While he charmed audiences with the excellent action-packed take on Sherlock Holmes, he is truly in his element when forging London-based gangster films.
Ritchie broke out with the messy but well-loved “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” and followed it with the excellent “Snatch” and the masterful “Rocknrolla” (I’m still naively hoping for its promised sequel). “The Gentlemen” returns Ritchie to the genre where he shines.
The story follows American drug dealer-turned kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who wants to retire to live a respectable life with his beloved wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) by selling his business to American billionaire Matthew (Jeremy Strong). However, he is facing threats from a rival criminal, and outside circumstances throw his situation in peril.
The film is incredibly fun and well-made. Ritchie’s script bubbles with wit and fun. His characters are remarkably specific, each feeling like a real and fleshed-out person, individual personalities bubbling over and into the dialogue. The writing, while excellent, is suitably crass for the criminal underworld characters the movie follows. And each twist of the narrative is equal parts surprising and perfectly logical in the story’s progression.
However, the whole story is being told by sleezy PI Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to Pearson’s number-two man, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), trying to ascertain the facts of the ensuing drama and extort Pearson for blackmail. Framing devices like this can be tricky to pull off well. In strong films, these seemingly pointless transition scenes bore and distract from a vastly superior main narrative. Likewise, weaker films that require such narration to be comprehensible merely highlight their own screenplays’ shortcomings.
Every once in a while, though, a movie will use a framing device to elevate a project. To do this, the main plot must be clear and easy to follow, but the gimmick provides insight that otherwise would not be gained. Further, these scenes must likewise be connected to the central plot and enjoyable in their own right. “The Gentlemen” strikes this balance beautifully. Grant and Hunnam’s chemistry and strong performances make the scenes not just an integral part of the film, but also something for which to genuinely look forward.
“The Gentlemen” is worth the watch just for the cast alone. Oscar winner McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) employs his signature charm as the protagonist. Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is impressively and unsettlingly unhinged as Dry Eye, the tantrum-prone and blindingly ambitious antagonist, a far cry from the rom-com leading men that made him famous.
Jeremy Strong (“Succession”) plays the sole other American, a criminally connected businessman planning to buy out Mickey, with a slippery but friendly façade belying cunning. Colin Farrell’s (“In Bruges”) boxing coach makes the most of the stock “good man in a bad situation” role, and provides a single moral character to support for those too squeamish to root for the far more morally grey criminals (not that he’s kept from engaging in some of the wildest schemes in the film).
Dockery’s Rosalind (“Downton Abbey”) is mostly present to humanize and drive her husband, but both she and Ritchie’s script balance her tough confidence and vulnerability that makes her feel like a real person outside the confines of the narrative. Grant trades in his leading-man charm to play a seedy tabloid PI. While fairly removed from the central storyline, he plays Fletcher with such personality and humor that scenes in the framing device feel both important and endlessly enjoyable.
However, the heart of the film rests within the shoulders of Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”). After some incredibly disappointing leading turns in Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and Guillermo del Torro’s “Pacific Rim,” Hunnam did not seem like the obvious choice to be a central figure in a cast filled to the brim with storied and talented stars.
Yet he more than holds his own. In fact, Hunnam’s consigliere to McConaughey serves as the emotional center of the film in an unexpectedly excellent performance. It is with great surprise that I express my excitement for his next projects.
“The Gentlemen” is an incredibly good time. Clocking in at just under two hours, the movie is a wild ride from start to finish. With excellent performances, clever writing, and an enjoyable story, “The Gentlemen” is certainly worth checking out.