Directed by: Guy Ritchie || Produced by: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, Bill Block
Screenplay by: Guy Ritchie || Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant
Music by: Christopher Benstead || Cinematography: Alan Stewart || Edited by: James Herbert || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 104 minutes
“There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!” Proclaims Matthew McConaughey before shooting a rival gangster. A part of me likes to think Guy Ritchie is speaking through his lead character in his latest feature, The Gentlemen, an unabashed, unapologetic throwback to the writer-director’s classic debut and sophomore efforts, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), respectively. The latter two films are some of the most unique, identifiable crime dramas of the past generation, not only reveling in their distinct, working-class Cockney backdrop and hilarious visual comedy, but they also established Ritchie’s career aesthetic, which he never fully remastered after those initial two films’ success. Following his transition to Hollywood with films like Sherlock Holmes (2009, 2011), The Man from U. N. C. L. E. (2015), and King Arthur (2017), Ritchie’s style grew blander and more watered-down with each mainstream installment, culminating in the inexplicable, tonal mess that was Walt Disney’s live-action Aladdin (2018). It’s difficult to knock the man too hard, though, given how most of his worst films grossed the most money, case in point being Aladdin’s $1.051 billion box office, a running theme of Disney’s terrible, pointless, cringeworthy reboots of their classic animated titles.
… but that’s a rant for another day. For now, Ritchie’s return to the stylized comedy-crime drama that is The Gentlemen is a modern celebration of cinematic auteurism. The film’s distinct audiovisual style, with its self-reflexive editing, unreliable narration, fourth wall penetration, and aggressive soundtrack, combined with its hybridization of comedy and crime drama elements, feels like a breath of fresh air relative to most contemporary blockbusters. I’m surprised The Gentlemen wasn’t “relegated” to a Netflix Original or another streaming platform, but as it is, the film represents a rare box office success for both an original intellectual property and a throwback auteur project. Ritchie executes all this, furthermore, without wallowing in obnoxious nostalgia for the styles of decades past (e.g. Stranger Things [2016-2020], Turbo Kid , It [2017, 2019]).
But enough gushing; The Gentlemen is no groundbreaking genre hybrid so much as it is Ritchie executing what he does best: Story-driven crime sagas about colorful ensemble casts, garnished with a healthy dose of absurdist comedy and hyperactive, yet purposeful editing. This latest feature, like Lock, Stock and Snatch before it, does little to convert those not already tuned to its writer-director’s style, as Rotten Tomatoes summarized, but there’s also little here that will turn off most audiences. Though not a character piece, The Gentlemen exemplifies Ritchie’s strong acting-direction with great performances from McConaughey and supporting castmembers Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, and Hugh Grant. The characters portrayed by Hunnam and Farrell in particular were surprising given how I’m not a fan of the vast majority of either actor’s filmmography. The cast’s execution of Ritchie’s gangster-jargon is impressive, weaving together various opposite personalities to maximize both tension and humor prior to exciting action set-pieces or farcical visual gags — or a mixture of the two!
Despite the movie’s stylized editing and prominent soundtrack — again, hallmarks of Ritchie’s work — The Gentlemen doesn’t feel quite as breathless as Lock, Stock and Snatch, which works to the film’s advantage. This particular story, while not exceeding a healthy 104 minutes, feels more deliberate and precise than its auteur’s most frantic works, mining as much tension from each dramatic sequence as appropriate. The Gentlemen is a showcase of effective pacing in that way, not trying to outdo the complicated, interlocking subplots of Ritchie’s debut work yet also not succumbing to modern screenwriting trends of engorged, bloated studio pictures, which routinely surpass 135-150 minutes.
With regards to the film’s self-reflexive editing and self-aware narration, Ritchie utilizes various narrative framing devices to cross-cut both alternative retellings of character backstories as well as streamline exposition. This intra and inter-scene editing factors into the aforementioned smooth pacing of the movie, but also emphasizes character personality and visual storytelling given the prominence of narration and efficient montage sequences. At its best, The Gentlemen is a well oiled machine of situational comedy melded with gory violence, yet at the same time, its narrative feels less wild and excessive than many broad Hollywood comedies. A result of the movie’s visual humor intertwining with its dynamic, likable characters is that it shows far more than it tells its story, which is the hallmark of cinematic vision.
The biggest drawback of The Gentlemen’s nonlinear format and ensemble cast is how predictable its narrative conclusion feels. While you won’t anticipate every twist and turn in the crime war, and while various standalone sequences are a joy to watch, the story’s ending is neither a cliffhanger nor a twist, feeling more derivative than the rest of the movie by a country mile. I didn’t hate the ending, but expected something more creative given how much the movie recalled the best elements of Lock, Stock and Snatch whilst also feeling calmer and more mature than both those films. The arc of McConaughey’s lead is truncated by this safe ending, as well, and top to bottom his entire character feels the most underwhelming of the bunch save for Henry Golding’s antagonist. At least McConaughey has multiple sequences to work his acting chops and exercise Ritchie’s delicious gangster lingo, while Golding feels altogether miscast.
A lackluster villain and a mediocre ending fail to scrape the varnish from Guy Ritchie’s comeback film, however. My first theatrical release of the year — and a January mainstream release, no less — leave me hopeful for cinema in 2020 as I prepare to ignore this year’s Academy Awards like most self-respecting cinephiles. The Gentlemen won’t be lionized at any mainstream, sidestream, or niche critical awards circuit this year or the next, but it represents a win for auteur projects at the mainstream box office and a return to form for one of England’s most identifiable writer-directors.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Smart enough for cinephiles and fun enough for general audiences, you have no reason not to enjoy the latest Cockney crime story from Guy Ritchie. The Gentlemen’s overt style in terms of narrative structure, experimental New Wave-editing, and robust visual comedy exemplifies how much life remains in Ritchie’s distinct auteur style, and is so charismatic that even newcomers to his work will be entertained by its goofy yet intelligent approach to organized crime.
— However… Matthew McConaughey’s lead isn’t as interesting as the actor’s performance, while Henry Golding’s antagonist leaves as much to be desired as the film’s unremarkable conclusion.
? What kind of martial arts or boxing gym was Farrell running, exactly? Mixed martial arts? Kickboxing? Jiu-jitsu?