REVIEW – ‘The Gentlemen’ is a riotous, roaring return to form for Guy Ritchie

Earlier this year, director Guy Richie took an unexpected swim in the Disney live-action animated remake pool with the over-bloated, CGI calamity that was Aladdin. It made over a billion dollars, naturally, but few walked away feeling like they’d seen anything particularly fresh. Breaking free of the shackles of remake hell with his first piece of wholly original cinema in 11 years, Richie finally gets his groove back by returning to the genre he does best.

A riotous, roaring return to form for the writer/director, The Gentlemen is a fast-paced, wickedly scripted thrill ride with a terrific ensemble cast and a cracking storyline. With a twist-filled narrative to consistently keep an audience on its toes and lashings of black comedy, Ritchie proves he’s still got the goods. And, in a season of sequels, remakes, and adaptations, something totally unknown shines even brighter.

Journeying back to the British gangster genre he revitalised over 20 years ago with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, The Gentlemen introduces us to American ex-pat Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey, also finally getting his groove back), who has cultivated a highly successful marihuana empire in 12 secret underground bunkers under stately homes dotted around the British highlands. Despite his burgeoning business, Mickey is calling it a day, putting out the word he’s looking to sell his empire to the highest bidder.

Meanwhile, Mickey’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) has been paid a visit by treacherous investigative tabloid journalist Fletcher (a magnificent Hugh Grant), who’s been hired by publishing magnate Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig up dirt on Mickey. After Mickey unintentionally offended the media mogul, Dave is on a warpath to bring the drug lord down.

After observing Mickey and other key players for weeks, Fletcher has uncovered plenty of incriminating material that forms the basis of a screenplay (just go with it) he’s written, which he’s willing to sell to Mickey for £20 million. Those other players include; the “Chinese James Bond” known as Dry Eye (Henry Golding), a rival crime boss keen to buy out Mickey’s empire, flamboyant American “cannabis kingpin” Matthew Berger (a delicious Jeremy Strong), who’s also interested in Mickey’s offer, and cockney boxing trainer Coach (Colin Farrell), whose band of young lads have unwittingly robbed one of Mickey’s drug dens.

Without heading into spoiler territory, it’s difficult to elaborate on how this marvellous cast of quirky characters all ultimately intersect within Ritchie’s chaotic screenplay. Suffice to say, Mickey’s decision to sell up triggers a whole cavalcade of dastardly scheming, nasty blackmailing, plenty of double-crossing, and more than a few deaths. As several players clammer to rise to the top of the drug world, just who is playing who? And which of them will be left standing by the final scene?

Ritchie uses Fletcher’s screenplay (which he aptly titles Bush, as in the place where he can frequently be found hiding) as the framing device for the entire film, which gifts Grant the glorious task of being the film’s pseudo narrator, as we continually venture back to his lively conversation with Raymond. The entire conceit plays like a pitch meeting inside the office of a Hollywood studio, as Fletcher sells his elaborate tale with all the gusto, exaggeration, and exuberance required.

The flair for theatrics Ritchie is so well-known for occasionally creeps in, as Fletcher often barks out filmmaking terms for how he’d prefer his potential movie to be crafted, which Ritchie’s frequent editor James Herbert and cinematographer Alan Stewart faithfully comply with. Fletcher rewinds certain scenes to offer an alternate perspective, even going so far as to change the screen format to anamorphic when the moment calls for it. It’s a rather outrageous method in which to present a film, but Ritchie never pushes it too far and Grant makes it all work seamlessly.

With a plot so unbelievably complicated, you may need to bring a chalkboard with you to the cinema to map it all out, Ritchie wildly jumps between his numerous subplots, as he slowly unravels tidbits of important information at just the right time. Yes, you will likely be completely unknowing of where The Gentlemen is heading, but Ritchie knows what he’s doing. You just have to trust that it will all make sense in the end. It’s part of the fun to be in the dark, and the non-linear storyline merely adds to the anticipation of the conclusion.

A devoted fan of the crime genre, Ritchie peppers his script with a hefty dose of self-referential gags including a reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which Fletcher decrees as “a bit boring,” and John Mackenzie’s seminal 80s London gangster flick The Long Good Friday, which Ritchie has consistently taken heavy inspiration from. Hell, Ritchie even references his own work, with a poster for the terribly underrated 2015 big-screen adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. appearing in the background of one scene.

With so many chaotic subplots within one relatively-short film, The Gentlemen does suffer from a lack of introspection of its broader themes. Ritchie takes brief stabs at social media, the tabloid trade, racism, and class warfare, but seemingly refuses to follow these paths into anything deeper. One particular plotline involving Raymond rescuing the drug-addled daughter (Eliot Sumner) of one of Mickey’s wealthy associates from a gang of Russian goons ultimately goes nowhere and adds little to the larger narrative. Still, it does offer one of the most darkly humorous death scenes you’ll see this year.

As for the ensemble cast, they all seem to be having an absolute ball, especially those playing completely against type. McConaughey is hardly breaking the mould playing a suave smooth-talker, but he sinks his teeth into one of the best roles he’s been offered in years. Hunnam offers a far more subdued, understated performance than most of the rubbish he’s been stuck in lately.

Golding is finally blessed with something different than the dashing love interest, delivering a wildly unpredictable villain that suits him perfectly. Farrell’s kind and surprisingly ethical boxing coach strangely becomes the film’s true heart and perhaps stands as the only genuinely good character in the entire piece. And, frankly, I’d watch Strong read a phonebook and still find it compelling, so it’s wonderful to see his breakthrough performance in HBO’s Succession is leading to film roles.

But The Gentlemen ultimately belongs to Michelle Dockery and Grant, who both chew every piece of scenery in sight and completely run away with this film. After being stuck playing the stuffy Lady Mary in Downton Abbey for the better part of the last decade, Dockery obliterates that image with a revelatory performance as Mickey’s ice queen of a wife, Rosalind. A no-nonsense, Louboutin-clad dynamo, Rosalind runs a mechanic shop (operated by an entirely female crew) with an iron fist, making her Mickey’s equal in every conceivable way. Dockery’s chemistry with McConaughey is electric and their romance is wonderfully effective.

After his shamefully Oscar-ignored performance in Paddington 2, Grant again goes for broke playing the slippery, slimeball that is Fletcher. A performance full of an unrelenting source of vigorous energy, Grant is genuinely dazzling here, even if his character is so horribly reprehensible. A wretched mix of wild insecurity and painful narcissism, Fletcher is far from a character you should enjoy watching. Yet, in Grant’s hands, somehow, you cannot take your eyes off him. His career renaissance continues to go from strength to strength with each role, and you can’t help but look forward to what he has next up his sleeve.

While Ritchie may merely be retreating to territory he feels safe within, The Gentlemen is so much damn fun, it’s impossible to care if we’ve seen much of this before from the filmmaker. Much like his heroes Tarantino and Scorsese, Ritchie deftly knows his strengths and finally offers a film that wisely plays on them. A strikingly stylish and endlessly entertaining romp, The Gentlemen is the first great film of 2020 and the perfect way to kick off the new year.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant
Director: Guy Ritchie
Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie
Cinematography: Alan Stewart
Production Design: Gemma Jackson
Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson
Music: Christopher Benstead

Editing: James Herbert
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 1st January 2020 (Australia)