Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam in The Gentlemen (Photo: STX)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Guy Ritchie
STARS Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam
Sure, we love to see people take chances or expand their horizons, but cinematically speaking, it’s sometimes good for filmmakers to stay in their own lanes.
While some directors have no problem jumping from genre to genre (e.g. Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, Steven Spielberg), others do best when they primarily stick to what they know. As one example, does anyone aside from seasoned film buffs remember Mr. & Mrs. Smith? (That’s the 1941 romantic comedy with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery, not the 2005 action flick starring Brad and Angeline.) It’s pretty forgettable and not the sort of movie we would expect from Alfred Hitchcock, who immediately went back to making his classic thrillers.
Then there’s Guy Ritchie, who’s best-known for his patented brand of films featuring tough guys, criminal enterprises, and snazzy dialogue that moves so fast, even Speedy Gonzalez and The Road Runner would be hard-pressed to keep up. After making his mark with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch — and only revisiting that milieu on a couple of occasions — it’s been sad watching Ritchie flounder. Aside from the surprisingly engaging The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which at least shares some DNA with his trademark), he’s been lost at sea with such efforts as Swept Away (made while he was still married to the film’s star, Madonna), those hyperactive Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr., this past summer’s live-action Aladdin (strictly a gun-for-hire project), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (dunno what anybody was thinking with that one).
With The Gentlemen, Ritchie has finally returned to his own corner of the jungle. Sharing scripting duties with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, the helmer has finally made a movie that recaptures the energy and eccentricity of his earliest pictures.
Matthew McConaughey headlines as Mickey Pearson, an American who runs the largest drug empire in England. Mickey only deals in marijuana and looks down on deadlier drugs such as heroin — he notes that this stance makes him feel good about himself, and it also makes him more likable when compared to other filmic drug lords (i.e. he’s as sweet as Santa when contrasted with, say, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface). But Mickey has decided that now is the right time to retire and enjoy the quiet life with his wife Rosalind (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), who not only knows about her husband’s line of work but actively helps him in running the operation.
Once word gets out that Mickey is planning to quit, various figures hope to either buy his enterprise or take it outright from him — prominent among this crop is a ruthless mid-level gangster known as Dry Eye (Henry Golding, planets removed from his nice-guy turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas). Squarely on Mickey’s side is his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam); squarely against him is sleazy tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan). And seemingly playing both ends against the middle is Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a seedy private eye who was hired by Big Dave to help take down Mickey but instead offers all his findings to Raymond for a high price.
Since this is Guy Richie in Default Mode, expect lots of explosive violence, codes of conduct among some of the criminals, and various double-crosses, triple-crosses and, heck, maybe even quadruple-crosses. The attendant twists probably make the movie seem more intelligent than it actually is, and Ritchie can’t help but include some moments that smack of “gay panic” and others that depend on wordplay that’s beneath him (a Chinese character is named Phuc, so there are a few tiresome exchanges about how to properly pronounce his name; har har).
But any ill-advised tactics are quickly subjugated by Ritchie’s ability to not only write colorful characters but to tap the best possible talent to fill these roles. No one misses a beat in this film — that includes Grant, whose flamboyant turn is in marked contrast to the image of him playing only timid, stammering men. McConaughey is in his element as a cocksure leader, and the loving relationship between Mickey and Rosalind is a nice contrast to the usual pairings in which the brutish gangster treats his significant other as dirt. Even Hunnam, generally as bland as tap water, excels in his role as Mickey’s loyal and competent first lieutenant.
Popping up on occasion to steal a few scenes is Colin Farrell as Coach. Normally, one might think that Coach would just be the benign nickname of a career mobster, not unlike all those imaginatively monikered hoodlums who populate Martin Scorsese’s mob movies (Jimmy Two Times, Freddie No Nose, Fat Tony, etc.). Nope. Even with morbid grooming that does him no favors, Coach actually is just a coach, and he retains his patience, morals and manners even in ugly situations. The only reason Coach even gets involved with these underworld exploits is because he figures his willingness to help out should not only serve as penance for some unseemly actions committed by his students toward Mickey but would also protect these pupils from facing any sort of harmful blowback.
With his good looks and perpetual air of self-confidence, it would have been easy for Farrell to spend his career only playing dashing heroes. Instead, it’s nice to see that he often takes the route of the dependable character actor, unafraid to take chances (or supporting roles) and venturing deep into wherever a part might take him.