Travel well indeed.
Guy Ritchie needed a win. After the success of his two Sherlock Holmes films in 2009 and 2011, people largely ignored the very good The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) was an unmitigated disaster, and the Aladdin remake (2019) was a pile of shit that was only successful because certain nostalgia is as potent as heroin. Taking that nostalgia as a hint, Ritchie decided to go back to his roots by making another film in the same vein as the two that put him on the map (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch). Full disclosure: I have never actually seen Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I probably should. Now that I have seen The Gentlemen, I have an idea what those other two are like.
One film-making technique I go back forth between hating and liking is starting a movie by showing us something from the middle or end of the story. The Usual Suspects employs one of the best uses of it and John Wick easily has one of the worst. Context is key. It works in The Usual Suspects because we want to find out the identity of Keyser Soze. It utterly fails in John Wick because we know John is not going to die. The Gentlemen starts with drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) sitting in a pub, talking to his wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) over the phone. Behind him, a man with a gun walks up, the camera cuts to the table in front of him, then we hear a muffled gunshot and see blood spray across the table. Immediately, two thoughts race through your brain. One – did they just kill Matthew McConaughey? Two – there is no way they just killed Matthew McConaughey. Right?
Long ago, my wife taught me one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking – if you didn’t actually see the death, it didn’t actually happen. That is not to say characters are not killed off-screen sometimes. It is to say that an off-screen death can always and easily be undone. The Gentlemen puts this idea front and center. On one hand, McConaughey is the lead in the film, and he is Matthew McConaughey, so we immediately doubt that he is dead. On the other hand, he is playing a drug lord, so it is very conceivable that the story ends with his death. At this point, we don’t know if Pearson is good or bad or even know the fact that he is a drug lord (unless you had that spoiled for you by trailers or IMDb). All we know is the guy from the Lincoln ads appears to have taken a bullet to the brain.
In order to sell the mystery of the opening scene, the story is presented to us in the form of paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Pearson’s right-hand man, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), walking us through the events leading up Pearson’s shooting. All of the events are the result of Pearson deciding to sell his marijuana business to American drug lord Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and another aspiring drug lord, Dry Eye (Henry Golding), wanting to get in on the action. Fletcher has a bunch of incriminating evidence of Pearson and Raymond’s operations, including plenty of associated crimes, and decides to blackmail Raymond for £20 million. Raymond patiently listens as Fletcher recounts events and we, the audience, are treated to a very entertaining film.
Plenty of credit goes to Ritchie, as this genre is his wheelhouse, but the film really works because of the performances. Hunnam and Grant are wonderful together, bantering and toying with each other throughout the film. Golding and Strong provide great contrasts in character to each other and Pearson, all three of them giving us a different type of character. Colin Farrell, playing a boxing coach whose students accidentally get them all caught up in the mix, steals every scene he is in. Dockery makes a case that she is the real power behind Mickey’s throne, standing out as the alpha in her every scene. And then of course, McConaughey. Pearson is an Oxford-educated, well-spoken kingpin, who is every bit as intimidating when calm as he is when his emotions break free. He is every bit the guy driving the Lincoln, as well as that same guy in the unaired commercials that murders passing-lane cruisers that cut him off while texting.
More often than not, I am not a fan of gangster flicks. Usually, it is films like The Irishman or The Departed or American Gangster that turn me off to the genre. Films that take themselves way too seriously; where violence seems to be the key focus of the film. Basically, movies that are no fun whatsoever. I gravitate towards the ones that are either very clever or have a sense of humor or, best of all, both. The Usual Suspects is the epitome of clever. Pulp Fiction has a sense of humor and is clever sometimes, though really tests the audience with the rape dungeon (and let’s be honest – the primary appeal of Pulp Fiction is much more the format of the movie than the story it tells). Over the years, I have found that British gangster films are my favorite because they are almost always clever and funny and The Gentlemen is definitely both. I am still patiently waiting for Sherlock Holmes 3, but The Gentlemen is worth the delay.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back unless you are still annoyed that Ritchie wasted our time with Aladdin.