After bursting onto the scene with cult classics such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), writer/director Guy Ritchie has tended to stray away from British gangster films besides 2008’s RocknRolla, so his foray back into the genre is a welcome return after a few hit and miss films over the last decade. With The Gentlemen, Ritchie modernises the genre where he first made his name with an all-star cast and an interesting storytelling technique that hints at a return to form for the filmmaker.
The film’s plot is centred on Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat turned huge scale marijuana dealer who is trying to get out of the game by selling his colossal business to another American, billionaire Matthew (Jeremy Strong) for a whopping 400 million dollars. Such is the norm of a Ritchie film, there are of course several players in the game all competing for Pearson’s business and resources, which is where the film begins to elevate itself, certainly from a storytelling perspective.
The plot of The Gentlemen is essentially told in reverse by sleazy, campy private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant), attempting to extort money out of Pearson’s right hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) by detailing various criminal acts and dodgy dealings he has witnessed whilst secretly following Pearson, trying to get dirt on him to sell to the papers. This aspect of the film could’ve certainly felt like a bit of a gimmick, yet its execution, flitting between Fletcher’s tête-à-tête with Ray and the events playing out real time on-screen feels polished and allows for palpable tension to build at a steady rate as the film’s climax approaches.
Whilst there isn’t perhaps a great deal of depth to Ritchie’s overall story in terms of exposition and predictability, the ability to keep the film exciting through continually intersecting character arcs and razor-sharp dialogue is the script’s saving grace. The way in which the titular Gentlemen find themselves sharing screen time never feels shoehorned, which is a credit to the direction and writing, especially when boasting a cast as strong as this where there very easily could’ve been a tendency to put as many famous faces on-screen at a time as possible. Equally, Ritchie is able to respectfully introduce urban culture into the film as a theme without it feeling forced, via a first on-screen performance for grime artist Bugzy Malone, whose character Ernie plays a significant part in putting the wheels into motion for the meaty part of the plot to begin and isn’t used as some kind of throwaway cameo.
A hallmark of Ritchie’s writing has always been sizzling one-liners and this is no different in The Gentlemen, where pretty much every character delivers some memorable dialogue and there are certainly a few lines in the film that will be uttered many years in the future. Though some people may not be so happy about it, the liberal use of the word c*nt in the film is wholly effective through its placement and delivery, effortlessly drawing laughs from the audience without becoming overused or silly.
Of course, great lines of dialogue are only as good as their delivery, which is where the cast of The Gentlemen come in. McConaughey is typically great, mostly oozing out Southern charm throughout but is given the odd moment to give a taste of his hefty acting chops too, whereas Hunnam, whilst always likeable and generally funny, puts on a bizarre accent which sounds like a mixture of his native Welsh, Geordie and rather posh that becomes a little distracting as the film goes on. Henry Golding is uncharacteristically detestable as the villainous Dry Eye, though certainly in a fun way, especially his later exchanges with Ros (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s tough-as-nails Cockney wife who also provides solid support. Bugzy Malone’s performance is a strong for a first-timer, particularly with his comedic timing and exchanges with Colin Farrell’s Coach.
Farrell is one of the film’s highlights, cropping up intermittently and stealing every scene he’s in with his hilarious blunt-force line delivery and apathetic attitude to the events happening around him, the only criticism being that one wishes he was in the film a little more. However, the standout of this film is Hugh Grant, carrying the weight of guiding the audience through the film on the shoulders of the truly slimy Fletcher who you can’t help but root for. Grant takes on a role so atypical of his career that at first you scarcely believe it’s him, adapting his effortless charm into a campy cheekiness that makes Fletcher easily the best bit about the whole film.
On a technical level, bar some clever/nostalgic editing when Fletcher is discussing 35mm film, The Gentlemen offers very little past an interesting storytelling technique that combines a good script with equally good editing. Whilst this takes little away from the enjoyment of the film, it does mean that there is a heavy reliance on the cast and the dialogue to really make the film work.
Though it perhaps demonstrates the lack of technical prowess that has plagued Ritchie’s recent outings, apart from its lack of depth and predictable ending that practically begs for a sequel, The Gentlemen is undoubtedly a well-told, well-acted and generally enjoyable film. It provides some classic lines of dialogue delivered by a fantastic cast that results in a film that is wholly re-watchable and offers a fun, humorous and easy-going cinematic experience.
Words by Elliott Jones