What? You didn’t think I’d stop going to new movies just because we’re in the middle of the Oscar Blitz, did you? While January is unquestionably a wasteland for the worst new movies to quickly premiere and die, I’m still going to take my opportunities to see new stuff as often as I can.
The first candidate on the 2020 slate is The Gentlemen, the latest from Guy Ritchie, who made his name with fast-paced, fast-talking action crime comedies like Snatch before applying those same techniques to more mainstream fare like the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies. Ritchie’s hallmarks are on full display in this film, which while flawed, was still genuinely funny and entertaining.
For those who know Ritchie’s style, the first few minutes may seem a bit trite. A big swinging dick crime boss – in this case marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) – narrates some fake philosophy about the rules of the jungle, right before seemingly being assassinated. We then smash cut to a stately yet modern English home where Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Pearson’s enforcer, comes home only to be confronted by a private investigator named Fletcher, played by Hugh Grant in an MVP role where he basically plays a tweaked out Gary Oldman type. Fletcher decides he wants to play a game with Raymond. See, Fletcher’s been hired by a tabloid to smear Mickey by exposing his connections to mid-level royals who have stoner kids, and has been offered £150,000 to do so. He wants to leverage that with Mickey for £20 million, because he feels he’s been able to connect the dots on Mickey’s entire empire, as well as the people who are vying to take it from him.
Now, if you’ve ever seen a Guy Ritchie flick you know better than to take any of this at face value. Obviously McConaughey’s not dead, and it’s about as big a red flag as possible for any character to have the confidence to think they’ve got the upper hand to extort money from anyone, much less a crime boss’ right hand. So again, it might seem like we’re doing some unnecessary exposition and table setting here, and I was briefly thinking to myself that the film just needs to get on with it, especially because given Ritchie’s penchant for unreliable narrators and just narration in general, we were going to get deluged with exposition for basically the entire film.
That said, once the main story got rolling, things got hilariously convoluted, with the usual crossed wires and intersecting plots weaving not so much a web of deception but a jumbled mess of funny and violent mishaps. Stoners fall out windows. Hitmen try to escape by jumping onto railroad tracks only to get run over by trains. Colin Farrell fills in for Brad Pitt as the film’s requisite fast talker that you can barely understand. But in a way, it all makes a weirdly perfect bit of sense.
The long and short of it is that Mickey wants to retire and sell off his empire, particularly to a fellow American, Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). For the price of £400 million, he’s willing to turn over his entire infrastructure, using those same posh royals as a front, in order to ride off into the sunset with his charming wife, played by Michelle Dockery. On the other side of things, an aggressive Chinese gangster named Dry Eye (Henry Golding, for once not playing a romantic lead) who works for a heroin dealer, just wants to muscle his way into controlling it all. Meanwhile, Mickey’s operation is compromised by a group of fighter/robber/rappers called “The Toddlerz,” led by a bloke named Ernie (Bugzy Malone). They work and train under their Coach (Farrell), who tries to reform them and run a legitimate boxing gym for troubled youths.
If any of that made sense, congratulations! You’re doing better than most of the otherwise smart characters in this film! But then, that’s always been the charm of Ritchie’s movies. Most other crime directors focus on sleek, sexy leads in these intricate games of cat and mouse. Ritchie, on the other hand, has always made his bones with films like these that arguably give us a much more realistic look at Britain’s underworld: a bunch of squirrelly fuck-ups who more often than not simply luck into their success and should count their blessings that their ugly mugs live to see another day. A lot of them are goofy, most of them have no emotional control, and yet somehow, they’re all charismatic in their own grimy way.
In the meantime, we in the audience aren’t necessarily looking for the clues and red herrings to solve the mystery. We’re along for the ride, just enjoying the random bits of comeuppance and manipulation that come up as we go. We get a thrill out of seeing who’s playing who, who thinks they’re playing who, and who’s just plain old getting played.
The fun is always in playing with our collective expectations and showing us sides we didn’t know existed. It’s fun to see Matthew McConaughey lose his cool. It’s fun to see Charlie Hunnam in a posh jumper looking like a muscle-bound academic who just happens to dish out the harshness when needed. It’s fun to see Henry Golding put his debonair persona to the side and just be straight up crazy. It’s fun to see Hugh Grant be as not-Hugh Grant as possible. When you never know what to expect, nothing is unexpected, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun and funny all the same. It should never work, but yet more often than not it works spectacularly. This won’t win any awards, but it’s a nice, harmless bit of genre fun to give us all a breather from the Oscar stuff while still rising above the trash alternatives.
Plus, everyone says “cunt” a lot. I feel like that word gets a bum rap, so I’m always happy when the Brits (and those who become Brit-adjacent by virtue of their presence) toss it about like it’s a comma.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a Guy Ritchie fan? Have you ever laughed so hard at a guy getting hit by a train? Let me know!