The Gentlemen: Guy Ritchie Adds Faux-Provocation to His Old Bag of Tricks
“In France, it’s illegal to call a pig ‘Napoleon.’ But just try and stop me.” It’s an out-of-the-blue remark from Mickey (Matthew McConaughey), the protagonist of Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, but for all intents and purposes, it could have been Ritchie’s motto in making his latest movie, a rollicking ‘fuck you’ to anybody who’s ever tried to give the man a bit of constructive feedback. The Gentlemen is fun for stretches, with a propulsive plot and hilariously specific performances from Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, and Colin Farrell, but Ritchie just couldn’t resist inserting a series of faux-provocative, racist tropes – presumably just to show that nobody could stop him. A bit like Guy Ritchie wrote a pretty good version of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and then hired Ricky Gervais to punch up the script, The Gentlemen is one giant *wink wink* “look at what I’m doing.” Telling the winding story of drug dealer Mickey Pearson, The Gentlemen’s strength comes in its decision to root the story in a meta re-telling of events. Sleazy private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant) arrives at the luxurious home of Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Pearson’s trusted right-hand man, recounting Pearson’s exploits in an attempt to bribe him in exchange for not turning over the details to a major London press outlet. The structure itself isn’t all that clever, but it puts the film’s strongest parts front-and-center: Grant and Hunnam have undeniable chemistry. Ritchie has finally figured out how to use Hunnam, as his well-dressed straight-man doesn’t ask the actor to extend beyond his range, but rather grants him permission to react to all the absurdities of Grant’s performance. Grant, in a way, is reprising his over-the-top villain role from Paddington 2, tossing in a pinch of Rated R spice. As The Gentlemen moves in zigzagging circles, further and further away from this focal point, Ritchie gets more opportunities to indulge his baser instincts. Henry Golding appears as a rival drug dealer, Dry Eye, referred to as “Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese,” an uncreative play on a racist childhood nursery rhyme. Jeremy Strong goes over-the-top as a potential buyer of Pearson’s drug empire, who Ritchie seems to have written as Jewish just so he could put to use all the different slurs for Jews that he could come up with. And Colin Farrell plays Coach, who runs a boxing gym meant to keep young British boys out of trouble, but who’s forced into service for Pearson and Raymond after his lads unwittingly rip Pearson off. Farrell’s introduction comes in a thrilling and simple fight scene, and his performance is surprisingly nuanced, but his entire arc seems to be an excuse for Ritchie to write in a conversation about how it’s okay to use slurs if you use them “with affection.” Although not particularly sophisticated, the twists and turns unveiled by this talented cast would, could, should make for a delightful January trip to the movies. It’s the work of a director who has spent a decade trying and failing to develop new tricks, and who, having realized what he does well, has resolved to do just that, and only that. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s slick fun. Unfortunately, Ritchie brings his entire movie down in an attempt to provoke – there can be no other explanation for the prominently placed Miramax advert – the studio founded by Harvey Weinstein – in one of the final scenes of the movie. The film opens and closes on the same extended metaphor: for the king of the jungle, there can be no doubt. Doubt is crippling. That may be true in the fictional drug game of The Gentlemen. But in the very real world of filmmaking, Guy Ritchie could have used a bit of skepticism, a bit of uncertainty, a bit of doubt – if only to hold his worst impulses in check.