Director Guy Ritchie, the undisputed kingpin of the British gangster film, is back with The Gentlemen, a high-energy action comedy with all the requisite ingredients: a pleasantly twisty script, inventive action scenes, and a hundred pages of baroque bad-guy dialogue. It’s a pleasant surprise in these winter doldrums.
The entire endeavor pivots on an ace turn from Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American expat in London who rules the city’s marijuana trade with superior smarts and discipline. Mickey is a good-guy drug dealer, as far as these things go. He stays on top by outwitting the competition and making sure that all his partners make money. “My product doesn’t kill people,” Mickey says to a heroin dealer. “And I like that.”
Mickey’s progressive drug empire is in peril, however. Legal weed is on the horizon, and Mickey’s rap sheet will prevent him from ever serving as CEO. He needs a buyer. Interested parties include Matthew (Jeremy Strong), a creepy little American with Mossad connections; Lord George (Tom Wu), the old-school don of the Chinese mob in London; and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), an ambitious up-and-comer with a mean streak.
Also on the game board: A vicious British tabloid editor, several crooked aristocrats, the Russian mafia (those guys are everywhere), and Hugh Grant as a libertine private eye. Then there’s Colin Farrell, who steals scene after scene as Coach, a do-gooder boxing instructor who leads an enthusiastic gang of at-risk youth. The kids are short on common sense, long on martial artistry, and dedicated to the millennial priority of filming themselves. The fight scenes are awesome, for many reasons, including tartan tracksuits.
Ritchie shuffles everything up with his usual nervy aplomb. There are narrative switchbacks, odd time signatures, and a banging soundtrack of old soul and new hip-hop. The Gentlemen is a deliberate throwback to his breakthrough movies, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. It’s also crammed full of sly references to classic cinema. The characters here are all movie-literate and remarkably articulate. (Ritchie drops in an overt Tarantino homage, presumably to deflect accusations of direct appropriation.) Dedicated Ritchie fans may also spot a nod to his underrated 2015 adaptation The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
It’s tremendous fun if you’re a Guy Ritchie fan. Even if you’re not, it’s probably the most approachable film in his gangster oeuvre. The tone is lighter, the testosterone levels are lower, and most of the heavy violence is kept off-screen. Ritchie continues to be largely disinterested in female characters, but Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey (!) does a lot with a little in the role of Mickey’s wife.
The story takes a few missteps. There’s a pound-of-flesh joke that feels off in context, as does a meta-fictional twist concerning real-world distributor Miramax. But all in all, The Gentlemen is a good time at the movies, especially compared to the thin gruel we typically get in action comedies on this side of the pond. McConaughey holds the center with a movie-star performance, and the ensemble players are clearly having a ball. It’s nice to be working with proper villains again.
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