Guy Ritchie is back. The British director is known for “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Sherlock Holmes,” but he seemed to have lost his touch recently with the awful “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” in 2017. I ranked that film as one of the worst of 2017 and was not expecting much when I walked in to see “The Gentlemen,” but it seems that Guy Ritchie has tapped back into the gang-busting, slick-talking, working-class British magic he became famous for.
In true Ritchie fashion, “The Gentlemen” tells a story with lots of twists and turns at breakneck speed in a completely non-linear fashion (use the bathroom beforehand, missing even 30 seconds will leave you confused). It follows an American drug dealer, Mickey (Matthew McConaughey), who has one of the biggest marijuana operations in the United Kingdom. Mickey is looking to get out of the drug trade to spend more time with his wife (Michelle Dockery) and live a quiet life on an English estate. He attempts to sell his empire to another American kingpin (Jeremy Strong) but faces complications when a representative of a Chinese crime conglomerate, named Dry Eyes (Henry Golding), gets involved. The majority of this story is recounted to the audience, and to Mickey’s right-hand man (Charlie Hunnam) by a sleazy reporter (Hugh Grant) who has been following everyone involved.
It took me a good five minutes to accept Hugh Grant with an accent that wasn’t “posh” (Grant is almost always typecast as an “upper-class” British love interest or villain), but once I did, I found him captivating. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Hunnam’s character becomes far more interesting than the main characters themselves.
Indeed, the background characters shine in this story. Colin Farrell’s Irish “Coach” finds himself having to account for some street kids he has been mentoring, and has to do a few “bad guy” things to help set the score straight with Mickey and put his wards (who have dubbed themselves the Toddlers gang) back on the straight and narrow. I found myself grinning every time he or the Toddlers came on-screen with their antics. Michelle Dockery is stellar as Cockney Cleopatra, who is rough talking, shrewd, and a true partner to Mickey rather than the mere object of his affection. In a sea of captivating characters, the two Americans - McConaughey and Strong - become lost.
I’m not even sure why Mickey needed to be American. Perhaps Ritchie is trying to ingratiate an American audience into his distinctly British movies. The setup makes sense - Mickey is “trailer trash” but is smart, and he manages to get a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He becomes ingratiated with the British elite, and realizes he has a knack for selling them drugs. But the background story ends there and we never really understand why Mickey had to be American.
As an American who has lived in England for many years now, I can tell you that many aspects of the story, particularly the humor, will be rather inaccessible to people who don’t live here and don’t have a deeper understanding of English culture. One character says to another, “He lives in the posh part of Croydon,” before being interrupted, “There is no posh part of Croydon,” which might translate to, “There is no bougie part of Compton.” However, there is no translation provided, and a lot of the dialogue may be unintelligible to non-Brits.
That brings us to the good old East London racism. The one drawback of this story seems to be the racist jokes told throughout; British publications like The Guardian slammed it for this reason. The Asian characters are repeatedly referred to as “Chinamen” and they are the main antagonists. The real question is whether Ritchie is embracing these jokes as being acceptable, or whether he is simply telling a story. If it’s the latter, then I hate to say it, but his portrayal isn’t entirely inaccurate. The day after I saw the film, I went to watch “the football” (soccer) in an East London stadium, and I must have heard a dozen racial slurs when a particular defender failed to do his job adequately. While I can’t fault Ritchie’s depiction of some of the rougher characters of East London, I don’t think it was really necessary, and ultimately it took away from what was otherwise a good movie.
In the end, this film is great fun and well worth spending money on, even if you are missing some of the context as an American. The actors are clearly having an amazing time, and each twist is more intriguing than the last. It’s also funny (if you have a dark sense of humor) and the pace switches from cerebral to violent to reflective so quickly you will most definitely be on the edge of your seat.