23/09/2020

The British director’s new film is a return to form, with a new twist: How does a man remain edgy and in charge when he’s rich and has everything?

The Gentlemen is a weak return to form for Guy Ritchie, who made his name with two stunningly high-octane, shoot-em-up heist flicks set in the London underbelly (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) before trying his hand at more mainstream movies (Swept Away, the two Sherlock Holmes movies and then the live-action Aladdin) with extremely mixed results. But a sexy, stylish ensemble cast in a London heist flick spitting out one-liners from a Ritchie-penned twisty script cant save this lackluster throwback to a style of storytelling thats past its prime.
The irony of The Gentlemen is that its about a drug kingpin whos aging out of the marijuana business and looking to unload his enterprise, and Ritchie himself is 51. The kingpins decision then kicks off a battle between different gangs with their own intergenerational differences of opinion.
The past-his-prime man at the center of it all is Mickey Pearson played by Matthew McConaughey, who is a mere 50 years old an Oxford dropout who came up with an ingenious business plan to keep the hoi polloi in his pocket and establish him as the number-one source of skunk-a-molah in England.
For better or for worse, 1998s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000s Snatch established Richie as a Tarantino-esque British bad boy and, though I like Ritchies movies, I wasnt expecting any sort of nuance (or even female characters) in The Gentlemen.
But dig a little deeper than one-liners about Shylock and Wagyu steaks, and youll find a petulant hostility and bitterness absent from his earlier work about how times have changed and how hard that is for a boss-man. The thing is that one need not be socially responsible politically correct in the parlance if youre making a larger-than-life crime film, but one ought to consider being at least a little less knuckle-headed about racial and cultural stereotypes than was common in the 90s or even the 00s.
The movie couldnt feel more rooted in autobiographical metaphor if it were a dream Ritchie was describing to his therapist.
Its supposed to be funnily subversive that Jeremy Stone plays an effeminate and shifty Jewish man after Pearsons fiefdom, or that Henry Goldings character is nicknamed Dry Eye in a running gag about Chinese gangsters, or that the young men at the boxing gym make elaborate YouTube videos that combine rapping, dancing, fighting and committing crimes. But hewing to established stereotypes that people still believe to be true is playing to the status quo, not subverting it (even if youll piss a few people off on Twitter).
As if hes trying to head these criticisms off at the pass, Ritchie tosses in a few jabs to would-be critics. One in particular stands out, and not just because its delivered by Colin Farrell in thick black spectacles and a track suit. When one of his boxers calls another a black c—, Farrell stops a second to parse the odious phrase like hes a grammar teacher, finally concluding that its not actually offensive because its just a friendly insult, and asks them to please get back in the ring.
I was, as noted, not expecting much when it came to female characters Lock, Stock has only two that I can remember off the top of my head, for example, and one of them spends almost all of her time passed out so I was pleasantly surprised to see Michelle Dockery show up as a fearsome businesswoman in Louboutins who kept her Cockney accent and attitude. But that her business is a garage staffed by and solely servicing women who own fancy cars felt more than a little passive aggressive; no one likely forced Ritchie to include a woman in his caper at all, so to give her a preposterous girl-power business felt snotty. Using the threat of rape as a plot device/ultimate comeuppance is doubly insulting and lazy.
Then again, Ritchies career began to go a bit awry when he remade Swept Away in 2002 with his then-wife Madonna. Not to yoko-ono Madonna for Ritchies career in fact, lets not yoko-ono Yoko Ono but it is strange that Ritchie married (and later divorced) one of the most iconic, trend-setting women in modern pop culture and has been floundering in a netherworld of big-budget films based on previously established properties and remakes ever since, until releasing this 21st century tantrum. (Though science does tell us that men are more likely to divorce women who are more successful than they are.)
Age and generational/cultural differences are a major theme in The Gentlemen, where middle-age gangsters from disparate backgrounds fight to remain in power over their younger contemporaries; for a director like Ritchie, it couldnt feel more rooted in autobiographical metaphor if it were a dream he was describing to his therapist. It and some of the mini-lectures that the characters spout off seem as though theyre directed at anyone who might take affront at his so-called cheeky sensibility or temerity to make an action film at his age.
For the most part, though, I enjoyed The Gentlemen for what it is a movie released at the end of January, when film critics minds are on the Oscars and Sundance, and general audiences are just trying to stave off the winter doldrums. Its fine, I guess but its hardly the subversive crime saga it (or Ritchie) thinks it is. Its just hard to be edgy when youre rich and 50 and the kids these days know it. Lock, Stock and compatriots like The Boondock Saints probably dont even merit space on college freshman dorm room walls any more. The Gentlemen will be lucky to rate ephemeral mockery on a social media app Ritchie hasnt heard of.