Before he took on blockbuster studio properties such as the Sherlock Holmes series starring Robert Downey, Jr., Guy Ritchie won a reputation for directing smaller-scale action/comedy crime movies, sometimes described in the critical press as Tarantino-esque. Indeed, I may have even once used that or a similar adjective. After a surprising interlude with Disney for 2019's Aladdin remake, Ritchie returns, somewhat, to his origins with The Gentlemen.
Working from his own screenplay, Ritchie casts Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, a transplanted American who went to England to attend college, decided to stay and become the godfather of the British marijuana industry. Contemplating an exit from his illicit business in order to spend more time with his beloved wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey), Mickey faces a feeding frenzy on the part of rival criminal factions desirous of inheriting his enormously profitable enterprise.
Yet the plot, as it were, is only the framework upon which to drape the quirky performances of the star-studded cast, which includes Charlie Hunnam (who starred in Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) as Mickey's consigliere, Jeremy Strong (who also appeared alongside McConaughey in Serenity) as Mickey's most likely successor in the drug world, Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as the disgruntled capo of yet another crime family, Hugh Grant as a sneaky private detective with a plan for enriching himself during the anticipated drug war, and Colin Farrell as the uninvolved and unconcerned founder of a local gym, known only as "Coach." Uninvolved? Well, not for long.
There are sporadic eruptions of violence, but The Gentlemen is not an action movie. The occasional mayhem is only arrived at after particularly ominous yet amusing dialogue among the principal characters, or sometimes their minions, sometimes describing their nefarious intentions to each other. Brutal murders and occasional torture are played less as cathartic releases than as ironic diversions, as the film's real raison d'être is for the actors, who are all having a grand time, to deliver Ritchie's snarky dialogue.
It's curious that it's left to an American, McConaughey, to be the only anchor of realism and seriousness in the proceedings. His Mickey isn't goofily endearing like most of the other characters. He's deadly serious and seriously deadly, and it's easily one of his best roles.
But despite the obvious glee of all the actors — especially the uncharacteristically sinister and duplicitous Hugh Grant — it's Farrell who deftly walks away with the movie. I can't think of when I've enjoyed him more, and he's a particularly good sport to run around in the most ridiculous wardrobe I can remember in recent films.
The Gentlemen isn't perfect, nor does it necessarily prove anything about the drug world or the crime syndicates that occupy it — despite a bit of reflection on what will happen to it all when or if England legalizes marijuana. And I'm not sure I approve of the particular narrative technique Ritchie uses to advance his plot — Grants' character essentially narrates the proceedings from a, well, Tarantino-esque screenplay he hopes to sell. The conceit calls into question what may be real and what may be the Grant character's invention.
You can't trust The Gentlemen, which, consequently, doesn’t really mean very much. But it's still enormous fun to watch.