The latest film outing from director Guy Ritchie is here, and it’s chock full of Guy Ritchie-ness. The Gentlemen is filled with frank and over-the-top violence, foul-mouthed witticisms, and lots of generally irreverent and cockney-accented shenanigans. Each member of the cast is having a lot of fun, and that list includes some heavy-hitters: Matthew McConaughey, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, and Colin Farrell are the major players in this twisty, bloody crime tale.
The top-level story is simple enough. Mickey Pearson (McConaughey) is an American growing and selling weed in the U.K., and he’s looking to sell his operation so he can settle down with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). Matthew (Jeremy Strong) is the front runner to buy, but things get more complicated when young, hotshot Chinese gangster Dry Eye (Golding) gets involved. Oh, and a skeezy journalist named Fletcher (Grant) approaches Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Hunnam) with some juicy intel, threatening to leak it to the press. So a lot is going on in this movie.
Some of the greatest films of all time belong to the genre of “gangster film.” Stories about organized crime have a special power to show human nature under pressure and to demonstrate what can happen when people have unfettered power. The Gentlemen is well-aware of this tradition, and it has a lot of great gangster movies on its mind stylistically. Ultimately, though, it fails to reach the heights thematically that the best of the genre can achieve. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to nail down any theme at all; this whole movie seems to exist simply for the fun of it, and it’s extremely self-indulgent. For example, I didn’t mention yet that there’s a group of cockney youngsters that run with Colin Farrell’s character and commit crimes in their free time. And! They’re rappers, writing and performing songs about their exploits. AND!!! They film it all and put it on YouTube (this is how McConaughey’s character learns his farm has had a break-in). It’s excessive in a way that leaves you scratching your head rather than enjoying yourself.
The main problem with this movie lies with the characters, who have charming personalities but little else, and who come off as flat due to an utter lack of development. Towards the film’s beginning, Fletcher shows up at Ray’s home and starts spouting exposition in a way that is neither believable nor nearly interesting enough to carry the film for as long as Ritchie asks it to. In another act of indulgence, the Fletcher character has an utterly obnoxious obsession with cinema and Ritchie shoe-horns several deep-cut filmmaking references into his monologues, a feature intended to be clever that served only to draw attention to the weak script. Speaking of which, this movie’s character problem is ultimately a script problem. Some of the outlandish dialogue in this film works, while much of it feels like it was written by someone clever rather than being words that real people would actually say. You can almost feel Ritchie crossing his fingers, hoping that his talented performers will be able to bring a little life to his many carefully crafted one-liners. The results are pretty mixed.
All of that said, if fun is what you are after and you don’t like your violent movies weighed down with a lot of emotions, you may have a great time with this film. This is going to be right up a lot of people’s alleys. Seeing all these performers together in a tangled criminal web is thrilling on some level, and there are enough capably put-together action scenes and WTF moments to make for a fun watch with friends, even if you can’t remember much about this movie a few months down the road.