I have to admit it — until a few days ago I’d lost my faith in Guy Ritchie. He started well, with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, then moved on to one of my favorite films of the turn of the century, Snatch. After that things went so badly that marrying Madonna wasn’t even the worst mistake Ritchie made. Sherlock Holmes? Rubbish. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? Hideous. I assume Ritchie would rather not dwell on being the cog in the Disney machinery that generated the Aladdin remake, and I’m happy to forget he did that, too. So: For 20 years, nothing he made deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Snatch.
Until now! The Gentlemen turns out to be a spiffing revival of that quintessentially 1990s genre, the hilariously bloody smooth-talking gangster opus. Quentin Tarantino was the great prophet of the form, but Ritchie, and others’ films such as Get Shorty and Sexy Beast, kept it going. In The Gentlemen, the hallmarks are in place: a ridiculously convoluted plot that straightens itself out admirably; appealingly lethal protagonists; savagery that is so matter-of-fact, it’s funny. Best of all is the film’s tart, slangy, electrical modus communicandi. In short: This the perfect guys’-night-out movie. I mean, assuming you dudes out there have all seen Little Women, which of course would be an equally fine choice.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey, an American marijuana kingpin in London who has such an ingeniously sophisticated network that, even if weed should soon be legalized in Britain, the operation seems to be worth the $400 million he wants to sell everything to a fey American billionaire (Jeremy Strong, of HBO’s Succession). We learn about this in flashback as a sleazy tabloid journalist (Hugh Grant, having the time of his life) tries to blackmail Mickey’s top tough guy and lieutenant (Charlie Hunnam). But things go pear-shaped for everybody in the game, including a scion of a heroin dealer (Henry Golding) who submits an unsolicited offer for the weed business; Mickey’s wife (Michelle Dockery), who runs a sexy-feminists’ sports-car-repair shop; and a resourceful boxing coach (Colin Farrell).
McConaughey is slightly miscast given that his Texas drawl really doesn’t fit the Cockney slang. And he doesn’t have anywhere near the level of camp needed to pull off a line — this is said to a man — like “you naughty little girl.” Grant is hilarious, though, in one of his choicest roles ever, playing exactly the sort of tabloid chancer who (he thinks) ruined his life by hacking his phone years ago. Late in the movie, though, and hidden beneath a pair of eyeglasses the size of a bay window, Farrell rides in to steal the show. He plays a small but crucial role as the boss of — I can hardly describe these guys without laughing — a troupe of vainglorious hip-hop dance-fighters in complementary plaid track suits. Picture a 2020 Brit version of the Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot. Yes, I hope these chaps get their own movie, franchise, breakfast cereal, sovereign country. (The costumes, by Michael Wilkinson, are so dazzling they actually distract slightly from the movie, like a beautiful creature drifting by you in the park while you’re trying to read a book.)
Ritchie scores everything impeccably to a nervy electronic-hip-hop soundtrack, saving some of the best sounds for the big set pieces such as a dance/fight/robbery and foot chases around a housing project in South London that result in calamitous fates for disposable people. The topper, though, is Ritchie’s inventively arch dialogue. In some recent films of his, it leaned to the irritatingly smug, but Ritchie (who salts the new movie with references to himself and his work) is spectacularly back on point with the chatter here. I venture that The Gentlemen has (easily) more quotable lines than Tarantino’s last film. “I was there, and I’m still shocked!” “Thank you, mysterious stranger.” “I’d say you’re eyebrows deep in every vice known to man.” The best bits are, as you’d expect, mini-masterpieces of profanity, vulgarity, and general not-niceness. I especially enjoyed hearing Dockery go Cockney — that’s Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, in hard-as-pavement gangsta mode, proclaiming, “There’s f***ery afoot!”
At the conclusion of all this mannered delirium, Ritchie promises us a sequel (hurrah), then dials up an exceptionally apposite hit by the Jam. “That’s Entertainment,” indeed. Guy Ritchie is back. All is well.