After the vast underperformance of 2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and the hefty overperformance of May’s “Aladdin,” we rejoin Guy Ritchie trying to ground himself via a return to his roots. “The Gentlemen” is the kind of shaggy-dog yarn that Ritchie spun with diminishing returns before the tantalizing paychecks of franchise cinema were dangled his way: a hard-R venture, populated by RADA graduates pointing weapons and cursing at one another between elaborate double-crosses. The difference is that its director is now in a position to equip his cobblers with the budgetary heft of an American indie (“The Gentlemen” emerges under the apparently deathless Miramax banner) and an altogether starrier ensemble. The problem is that at no point does Ritchie seem to have realized such material is still, on a fundamental level, bollox.
On screen, the story is slapped together by a hack journalist; it feels like it. Hugh Grant’s lisping, seedy reporter Fletcher shows up one night in the kitchen of criminal fixer Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and lays out the tall tale of one Mickey Pearson: a tweed-wearing Californian (Matthew McConaughey) who gained a foothold in London society by dealing primo weed, then met his downfall upon snubbing Fletcher’s editor (Eddie Marsan) at a cocktail party.
For no reason other than it allows Ritchie to work in some of that sub-Tarantino postmodernism he hasn’t yet outgrown, Fletcher has written this saga up in screenplay form, so Mickey’s misadventures are presented as highlights from an especially salacious pitch. “Every movie needs a bit of action,” Fletcher notes, after narrating yet another dust-up; his throwaway diss of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (“wasn’t for me – a bit boring”) leads one to consider the extent to which he speaks for Ritchie himself.
“The Gentlemen” is soon overrun with varyingly lively stereotypes, shuffled before us like shell game cups. “Downton Abbey” star Michelle Dockery is Pearson’s stern-faced moll, mostly secondary until an attempted rape shot with typical Ritchie sensitivity; Colin Farrell a Burberry-clad boxing coach who gets the best gag (a slur on the South London backwater of Croydon) before receding from sight; “Succession” standout Jeremy Strong is the Jewish banker bankrolling Pearson’s operations.
You can see why these actors were drawn here – they get fistfuls of lines — but Ritchie is clearly more interested in some than he is in others. Grant at least has disreputable fun at the expense of those journos who’ve crossed him, yet a coasting McConaughey renders Mickey an uninteresting cypher whose Zen koans (“Doubt causes chaos, and one’s own demise”) revive the unfortunate memory of Ritchie’s existential-drama-but-with-
A limitation is that these characters are constructed entirely of hot air, the kind of posturing men have traditionally spouted in drab London boozers. Ritchie is evidently enjoying being off the PG-13 leash: cue an anal sex joke every minute, persistently mirthless play on Mickey’s weed strain “Bush,” and a drawn-out sequence involving a character named Phuc. Fail to snort, however, and you might notice how reactionary the banter is. Mickey’s whinge about hikers chimes with the image of Ritchie the aspirant country squire; a crack Fletcher aims at Chinese mobster Henry Golding — “ricence to kill” — intends to signal racist character, but also feels like a low blow intended to nudge an easy laugh out of those bulletheaded bruisers who’ve felt empowered by recent developments in the Brexit saga.
Beyond regressive windbaggery, nothing justifies the two-hour running time: not the archaic soundtrack cues, nor the lame imitations of viral gang videos, nor the clanging late homage to 1980’s seminal Britflick “The Long Good Friday,” unfit to inhabit the same planet as its inspiration, let alone lace its boots. So we wind up pondering once again the mystery of the Ritchie career: how a filmmaker who’s notched up at least four major duds (2002’s “Swept Away,” 2005’s “Revolver,” 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and his “King Arthur” outing) and rarely risen above time-killing mediocrity in his hits continues to make the movies he wants to make. Is he cinema’s most prominent example of white privilege? Or, like almost everyone on screen here, does he have incriminating photographs of the rich and powerful?
For all that the much-papped Ritchie may retain some idea about the evils of newspapermen, “The Gentlemen” itself trades in a very tabloidy view of Britain, down to a final gotcha involving the same snortingly sensational smear that circled a recent Tory Prime Minister. Peddling such raspberry-blowing nonsense might earn a newbie director the reputation of a scrappy, iconoclastic underdog; two decades and several million dollars into Ritchie’s career, it feels like a heavily cynical and crass attempt to give that part of his fanbase who found “Aladdin” lacking something closer to what they might want.
We get the films we deserve, some say. Visually unexceptional when it’s not plain squalid, shameless in its bid for a sequel, “The Gentlemen” is the film Britain deserves as it staggers backwards into the New Year under the questionable influence of an unabashedly populist leader. America: save yourselves.
STX Entertainment will release “The Gentlemen” in theaters on Friday, January 24, 2020.