By Preston Wilder
Is Guy Ritchie good? To quote Barry the Baptist in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: “He’s better’n good, he’s a f**kin’ liability!”. Ritchie’s way with coarse macho banter is second to none, at least on the English-mockney side – but that’s also his f**kin’ liability, making him seem merely laddish and obscuring both the joy he takes in language and something else, his wistful nostalgic side.
The Gentlemen probably won’t make him any new fans – unless perhaps they’re younger viewers who missed his late-90s/early-00s heyday with Lock, Stock and Snatch, and know him only from his past decade in Hollywood. His stock is currently both higher and lower than ever: he’s just made the 36th-highest-grossing film of all time, unadjusted for inflation – but he did it as a gun for hire on Disney’s Aladdin, a no-brainer hit with very little of the Ritchie brand. Maybe that’s why he’s gone back to the comical gangsters that made his name, albeit with an Anglo-American tweak as befits his time across the pond – hence The Gentlemen, a tale of toughs and toffs with a mile-wide meta streak. To quote Fletcher, the seedy private eye played with relish by Hugh Grant: “Now starts the alpha dance!”.
That’s ‘alpha’ as in alpha male, of course, a veritable “cock-off” – the main swinging dick being Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), a sometime Rhodes Scholar turned London weed baron. Mickey wants out and another American, Matthew (Jeremy Strong), offers to buy his British empire, just in time for legalisation – but things get messy, the story being narrated to Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) by Fletcher, who of course wants money. The dance turns violent – though not, it must be said, crazy violent. At one point we see Mickey blowing away a rival, but it turns out to be fake news; “Only having a bit of fun,” chuckles Fletcher, playing unreliable narrator. Maniacal mayhem is for the young and foolish, and Mickey – like Guy Ritchie – is a middle-aged man.
That’s the point, that Ritchie is revisiting this territory with the benefit of 51 years under his belt. “I like middle age,” claims our hero, looking forward to a future of gentrification and family life, with “a spoonful of caviar” to help the getting-older medicine go down – and Ritchie likes it too, indeed his sensibility was always a touch middle-aged. Even when he was in his 20s he was writing films about wide boys and hard men, callow guys in their 20s getting schooled by older, more settled gangsters; pride of place in The Gentlemen goes to Colin Farrell as ‘Coach’, a mentor to mixed-up young hoods. There’s a retro vibe in general; our heroes enjoy “old-school 35mm” when it comes to films and “a good old-fashioned 50-50 mix” when it comes to weed – and of course the whole thing comes with a hefty smack of political incorrectness. It’s not exactly racist, but Matthew is known as “the Jew” – at one point “a pound of flesh” is extracted from him, Shylock-style – and one man refers to another as “a black c**t” (patiently explaining when the other is offended that it’s purely descriptive: “You are black, and you are a c**t”). It’s not exactly homophobic either, but Fletcher spouts campy innuendo and we also hear about an aristo’s life being ruined by a tabloid exposé revealing that he’s gay, which seems unlikely in this day and age. Ritchie seems a bit out of step with today’s Britain.
The film is nostalgic in another way too. The title isn’t wholly ironic: there’s a code of honour between the men, especially the tea-sipping older villains from a time before grime (Bugzy Malone, a star of that musical genre, appears in a small role) – though of course they’re still working-class gentlemen, as opposed to the toffs (on whom they prey), the middle-class rich kids wallowing in “liberal white guilt” (a group of them are discovered wallowing in a South London heroin den), and the over-regulated Britain of local councils and badger-spotters that’s Ritchie’s true enemy. Fans may see his macho posturing as a working-class lad’s cry of defiance against a rule-bound, oppressively orderly culture. Others will see it as macho posturing.
Either way, The Gentlemen offers pretty much what you’d expect. Imaginative use of bad language (“There’s f**kery afoot!”), a stray Brexit reference, assorted tough guys being very quiet and polite as a prelude to unleashing righteous punishment. Only the structure seems a bit haphazard, middle age having perhaps made Ritchie a bit more lazy in tying the whole thing together – but the film still works as a swaggering, inappropriate, scurrilously funny romp. So does that mean it’s good? It’s better’n good, it’s… well, you know.
DIRECTED BY Guy Ritchie
STARRING Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant
US 2020 113 mins