When it comes to gangster or crime movies the stories typically go one of two ways. They either embrace a slow, monotonous speed that builds to a dramatic climax or they’re highly stylized balls of chaotic energy. To no one’s surprise, Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen embraces the latter. Diving back into the genre that helped launch his career, Ritchie produces a high octane, star-studded flick that is equal parts entertaining, funny, and depressingly hollow.
Our story follows marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who has already established a continent-spanning criminal empire and is looking to get out of the game. Told mostly through a series of flashbacks narrated by a skeevy private detective named Fletcher (Hugh Grant); he recants his findings to Pearson’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) in an attempt to blackmail Mickey. Along the way, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters who all have their own motivations and questionable loyalty.
At its best, The Gentlemen is a comically dark film that moves the audience along from one ridiculous scenario to the next. Yet, there’s very little substance to this gangster film, with the majority of the cast barely receiving any character development. Even the main protagonist, Ray, is minimally explored. We never learn why he works for Mickey or their relationship with one another outside of work. It’s an odd choice that makes watching The Gentlemen feel like you missed an entire film beforehand.
Mickey gets the majority of the emotionally dramatic scenes, but McConaughey’s smooth operator approach never gives these moments the weight they deserve. It’s all very shallow, lacking in nuance and complexity. This makes it difficult to care about the outcome, especially since Ritchie oversaturates the plot with too many twists.
Ritchie relies heavily on this gimmick, causing a lot of the big moments to simply wash over the audience without any real significance. This kinetic momentum is both The Gentlemen’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. The film’s pacing is all over the place as if the editor was trying to reel in Ritchie’s worst impulses to cut away to a film reel just to let the audience know that he’s all about those classic, old films.
Thankfully, the wonderful characters and sharp writing offsets the uninspiring story. Hunnam and Grant have superb chemistry, with some of the best scenes easily coming from these two. Rival Chinese gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding) proves to be a perfect foil, even if Ritchie lobs far too many racist Asian stereotypes throughout the film. But it’s Colin Farrell’s boxing instructor turned reluctant gangster, Coach, that steals the show. Farrell’s awkward, but commanding performance is absolutely hilarious. The only downside is he’s barely in the film, despite being one of the movie’s most interesting characters.
Michelle Dockery as Mickey’s wife Rosalind also deserves a special mention. Being the spouse of a criminal is typically a thankless role in gangster films, but Dockery wonderfully elevates the character beyond cliche. She’s an absolute badass, that actively encourages and accepts Mickey’s behavior. It’s refreshing to see since most wives in these types of movies solely exist as a counterweight to their husband’s vile acts. By flipping this, Rosalind becomes an empowering, intimidating figure that’s just as menacing as Mickey.
McConaughey ends up being the weakest of the cast, as his lazy demeanor simply doesn’t fit in Ritchie’s manic style. Despite being the kingpin, he’s never that menacing even when he is threatening someone’s life. He always just one second away from going “all right, all right, all right,” and falling asleep in a hammock. When compared to the rest of the cast McConaughey is downright tame and adds very little to the film’s enjoyment.
Hunnam is certainly the more intriguing of the duo, acting as the audience’s window into this crime-filled world. He’s just the right mix of threatening and calculating, which will make you wonder why he isn’t the one running the business. But Ritchie never feels the need to explain Ray’s loyalty, instead, he glosses over the idea completely. It’s a bit disappointing since Hunnam gives a far more energetic and captivating performance – even if he’s just a glorified errand boy.
Finally, Hugh Grant’s Fletcher essentially exists to dump exposition on the audience and chew through every line of dialogue he has. This doesn’t make is performance bad, in fact, Grant’s joyous energy is infectious. I just wish he really did more in the film rather than explain how clever everyone is while reminding them he is the cleverest of them all.
Despite all this negativity, I still did enjoy The Gentlemen. It’s a generally entertaining movie that never aspires to be more than a gangster comedy. Which is completely fine, even if the movie is way less interested in its own characters. This isn’t the best Guy Ritchie film, but it’s not his worst feature film. Just don’t expect much other than some dark humor and a wicked performance by Colin Farrell.