Guy Ritchie’s first two films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) burst onto the screen announcing an electric and witty new director. However, with such newfound promise and success, Ritchie inevitably moved towards big studio films with higher paydays; as such we got the enjoyable Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), but we also received more cookie-cutter fare that watered down Ritchie’s unique voice in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and the recent hit Aladdin (2019). Having paid his dues, Ritchie has returned to the complex and fast-talking cockney-crime format that made his two first films such thrill rides.
The Gentlemen (2019) takes on a sprawling cast of characters. As with Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch we focus on the British criminal underworld, specifically how a marijuana drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is seeking to cash out and live a life of leisure with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). However, Mickey’s efforts are complicated when multiple rivals and players get involved with Mickey’s attempted sale. This conflict is all told by pompous PI Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to Mickey’s right hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam), hoping to get his own fraction of a pay-out in order to buy his silence.
In these complex ensemble pieces, Ritchie has never been keen to explore or focus on the characters, he’s much more interested in the crafting of a plot and its winks and contradictions to viewers. That doesn’t mean Ritchie ignores the crafting of his characters, he certainly is keen to create original personas with distinct personalities. This is aided with always keeping a tongue-in-cheek tone around the entire film and having all his stellar actors work as a comprehensive unit. This allows The Gentlemen to triumph as a fabulous form of entertainment and may advance Ritchie’s reputation by staving away from his more machismo-centered tones that plagued his earlier films. Ritchie is also able to recuperate the break-neck rhythm that his best films had, making the entire experience feel more like an amusement park ride than a gentle exposition of information. This pace helps keep the film moving and along with the inventive editing adds a liveliness and richness on screen.
The genius of this film, however, is in the incredible casting. Ritchie is able to bring about a mix of putting certain performers in their natural zones (McConaughey as a marijuana drug lord), and by having others play against the type (Grant as a skiving detective). This brings about amazing performances from each of the cast members, with particular standout in Grant. However, such casting decisions help bring about more of a focus on the plot and dialogue as viewers aren’t as concerned about an actor performing as they are blinded by such movement, exposition, and action on screen.
When a great plot is conceived with a lack of focus on character emotions, this reaps the fruits of Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. However, this is a hard balance to bring about, as witty dialogue and story have to make up for the lack of much of a sentimental core. As such The Gentlemen might be adept and well directed to make itself seem like a complex and confusing story, however, when taking a step back one sees that the conclusions and character arcs don’t fit as snugly as Ritchie has had them in other films. This results in a film that is rather high on style but a bit lacking in substance.
That’s not to say that The Gentlemen is a bad film by any means, it just doesn’t live the narrative achievement that its other imitative cockney-crime films did. A stellar cast and a resurgence of a clear voice and style from Ritchie make this one of his best films in more than a decade, and an assured good time at the movies.