The Gentlemen is a return to the London gangster milieu where writer/director Guy Ritchie first made his name with films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and snatch. (2000). And yes, the film seems stuck in the last decade in more ways than one, it’s highly questionable that the only gay character is a slimy man-whore into S&M, its only female character barely even manages to rise to the level of tokenism, and Ritchie does absolutely nothing new here, but The Gentlemen is still hugely entertaining. Most of the jokes land, the dialogue is as sharp and expletive-laden as ever, the cast are having a ball, and the self-reflexivity works well for the most part. The plot is as derivative as it gets, but Ritchie has injected real verve into it. The Gentlemen won’t change your life, but it will make you laugh.
The film begins as sleazy private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant) arrives unannounced at the home of Ray (Charlie Hunnam), right-hand man to Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an Oxford-educated American ex-pat who controls a huge marijuana empire in London. Several months prior, Fletcher was hired by tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsen) to dig up dirt on Pearson, and Fletcher has written a screenplay based on his investigation, telling Ray that unless Pearson pays him £20 million, he will hand over everything he has to Dave. Meanwhile, Pearson has decided to sell his whole operation, but when word gets out, all hell breaks loose, as the various interested parties vie for advantage. Most of the subsequent film takes the form of Fletcher narrating his exploits to Ray, explaining how he learned so much about Pearson and what he does.
Aesthetically, The Gentlemen is very much in the mould of Ritchie’s previous gangster movies. Because Fletcher frames his narration as a screenplay, it allows Ritchie to employ a multitude of self-reflexive devices – a smash cut coinciding with Fletcher asking Ray to visualise a smash cut; on-screen captions telling us who’s who; animated maps; freeze-frames; rewinds; a shot of film running through a projector etc. At one point, Fletcher is discussing the merits of anamorphic over 1.78:1, and the film’s aspect ratio changes accordingly. At another, he’s arguing for the merits of 35mm celluloid over digital, and the film duly switches formats. Such playfulness means that it never for a second takes itself too seriously, and it remains immensely fun, with the more you know about the mechanics of assembling a film, the more humorously self-reflexive the film becomes – Fletcher even acknowledges his own role as an unreliable narrator.
In terms of themes, the most obvious is the idea that the economic divide between gangsters and aristocrats masks their practical similarities. The smooth running of Pearson’s business depends on both classes – the aristocrats who he needs to grow his product and the gangsters who distribute that product. The clash between the pompous insularity of the English upper class and the perceived uncouthness of the lower class has been done to death in both literature (Wuthering Heights (1847) springs to mind) and film (Performance, for example), and although Ritchie doesn’t say anything even remotely new about it, it still forms an interesting textural background – gentrification is ever-present; there are ironic references to the posh areas of Croydon; Ray, a working-class Newcastle native, is a cleanliness freak who eats wagyu steak and lives in a mansion, and when he’s dispatched on a mission to an uncivilised working-class area, he explains he “just hates them junkies,” seeing them as very much his social inferiors.
One of the most central scenes sees Ray and his mn clash with a gang of machete-wielding thugs on a council estate, and there’s a real sense of old vs. new – traditional gangsters fighting it out with internet-savvy hoodlums who don’t give a damn about tradition or respect. There are a lot of laughs to be had with these issues, such as Ray and Coach (a scene-stealing Colin Farrell) having problems pronouncing the name Phuc. And again, none of this is presented as even remotely serious.
The biggest problems with the film are probably its lack of depth, and the familiarity of the presentation, characters, and milieu – there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in previous Ritchie films. And as you would expect, there isn’t much in the way of emotional maturity or narrative complexity. It’s all very surface-level, and it makes no apologies for such.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Gentlemen. It’s a funny as hell caper and the actors are clearly having terrific fun. It might be formulaic and overly familiar, but it’s also immensely enjoyable.