“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 can’t save this lackluster throwback to a style of storytelling that’s past its prime.
The irony of “The Gentlemen” is that it’s about a drug kingpin who’s aging out of the marijuana business and looking to unload his enterprise, and Ritchie himself is 51. The kingpin’s 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, 1998’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and 2000’s “Snatch” established Richie as a Tarantino-esque British bad boy and, though I like Ritchie’s movies, I wasn’t 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 you’ll 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 you’re 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 couldn’t feel more rooted in autobiographical metaphor if it were a dream Ritchie was describing to his therapist.
It’s supposed to be funnily subversive that Jeremy Stone plays an effeminate and shifty Jewish man after Pearson’s fiefdom, or that Henry Golding’s 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 you’ll piss a few people off on Twitter).
As if he’s 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 it’s 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 he’s a grammar teacher, finally concluding that it’s not actually offensive because it’s 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, Ritchie’s 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 Ritchie’s career — in fact, let’s 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 couldn’t 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 they’re 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. It’s fine, I guess — but it’s hardly the subversive crime saga it (or Ritchie) thinks it is. It’s just hard to be edgy when you’re rich and 50 and the kids these days know it. “Lock, Stock” — and compatriots like “The Boondock Saints” — probably don’t 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 hasn’t heard of.