It’s not hard to differentiate between American crime films and British crime films. The nationality is a clear indicator, but it runs deeper than that. American crime films cover themes of honour, loyalty and betrayal. British crime films focus on grit, grime and brutality. This rule doesn’t apply to all of them, but it’s common. Among British crime directors, none are more iconic than Guy Ritchie. After making his name with classics Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), he’s had a varied career of many highs and lows. Even so, we know we’re getting something interesting every time his name is attached. As is the case with The Gentlemen (2019), his return to the crime genre. Ritchie practically wrote the book on the modern British crime film and he’s pleased to remind everyone of that fact, showing off all his greatest talents and some of his weaknesses.
Set in London, we are introduced to big time marijuana dealer, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). Having spent years in the weed game, Mickey intends to sell his empire to businessman, Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). It won’t be easy, as there’s plenty other criminals who get tangled into the action and want a piece of the pie. This includes Dry Eye (Henry Golding) as a drug running up-an-comer and Coach (Colin Farrell), the leader of some low level thugs. Also in the mix is Mickey’s righthand man, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a mysterious eccentric who seems to know everything about everyone. As is common with Ritchie’s work, it’s all put together like a jigsaw puzzle. While putting it all together, we watch these thugs shoot, scheme, punch and drop many C-bombs.
After an absolutely brilliant opening credits sequence, we are dropped into a deliberately jumbled barrage of plot details, world building and conflicting motivations. Ritchie’s penchant for convoluted plots is dialled to 11 here. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as confusing plots work as long as that confusion is intentional and becomes clear down the track. While things become clear by the midpoint, the labyrinthine first half was actually supposed to be comprehended. Sure, the over-convolution is obviously part of the joke, but all the information relayed is still important for later revelations. On the flip side, it’s tough for most films to recover from a shaky start, so the fact it remains interesting throughout should be applauded.
Once the audience makes sense of the madness, plenty of fun is had when the action kicks into high gear. The violence elicits all the necessary shock and awe, despite being slightly restrained for Ritchie. This isn’t to say he’s losing his edge, as the events depicted are still appropriately gritty. The difference is that Ritchie seems to leave things to the imagination this time. Instead of a headshot, we get blood spatters on a wall. This doesn’t take away from the bite, but rather adds a layer of subtly. There are definitely horrifying events which are far from subtle, but Ritchie allows the audience to figure out the gory details themselves. In a weird way, this trick actually fuels the film’s most comedic moments.
This isn’t Ritchie’s only trick, as he plays with editing structure in an extremely frenetic manner (even by his standards). Not only is the narrative intentionally jumbled, but the edit and transitions directly call attention to the fact that you’re watching a film. The fourth wall breaking adds energy to the entire piece and is weaved into the narrative, but isn’t wholly necessary. Despite increasing entertainment value, it does seem like a framing devise merely designed to create enjoyment when the narrative slows to a crawl. It’s a bandaid, but Ritchie has always had a flare for this kind of showy presentation and knows how to make it feel less cynical. In The Gentlemen, it’s a double edged sword as it’s perfunctory yet fun.
“Fun” is the key word to describe this experience. The performances are enjoyably over-the-top, the grim action is satisfyingly laughable and the plot is filled with hilarious nonsense. The structural shortcomings and obnoxious presentation don’t hold back the best moments from being nail-biting or sidesplittingly funny. We are shown some pretty imaginative sequences with unexpected solutions. Ritchie finds the smallest details littered throughout the narrative and puts them to clever use in the action. Sadly, it seems like it’s only pretending to be clever, as Ritchie skims over some information before you have time to think about it (or figure out it may not make total sense).
Ritchie never skims over crafting characters who are effortlessly cool. Everyone has cool moments, cool dialogue and a cool attitude. It’s apparent just how much fun every performer is having with their role. This is especially true of Hugh Grant, wonderfully playing against type as the sleazy Fletcher. Charlie Hunnam as Raymond displays underplayed intimidation skills and Henry Golding has an enjoyably threatening presence. Ritchie works well with this perfect cast, all of whom should definitely return to this genre. Empathy is the only thing missing from this awesome group of characters. The audience likes each character, but we don’t care about them like the film wants us to.
Ritchie had been away from the genre for far too long and has even contributed to some of its low points. Even if The Gentlemen doesn’t fully represent a return to form, it does represent a huge step in the right direction. Looking back at his British crime films which defined the genre, they aren’t too dissimilar to what is achieved here. What holds this film up is that Ritchie isn’t just trying to recreate his glory days. He’s looking at what was defined and is trying new tricks so things can evolve. For that, his work deserves respect.
Best way to watch it: A night out with the lads.