When the guy sitting in front of you at the theater starts double fist-pumping during the trailers and dual-wielding finger pistols during the opening credits, rest assured you’re in for a treat one way or the other. The Gentlemen is the perfect anecdote to awards season and a welcome return to form for director Guy Ritchie.
Having taken the blue pill and helming Disney’s live-action adaptation of Aladdin made this return to gangster comedy was a bit of a question mark. Not so much a question of ability but one of motivation. His foray into Arabian nights grossed over $1-billion globally and he was likely paid a king’s ransom to direct the project so he really didn’t have to go back to his roots. However, within a few minutes of The Gentlemen, it’s easy to see Ritchie’s skill for character writing and dialogue, especially with larger groups. His sense of humor is always one of his strongest assets and it works best when there are a bunch of different angles to work it from. With Aladdin and even the Sherlock Holmes films, there are fewer characters in play so you miss out on a lot of the group dynamics that made his earlier films work so well. Films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch have unique narrative energy because of how each of the characters interacts with one another and that very energy is coursing through the veins of this film. It’s early but Best Original Screenplay consideration doesn’t seem far fetched.
While Ritchie’s talent for character design is top-notch, his storytelling is maybe the unsung hero of his films. At the heart of these gangster comedies, there’s always a mystery or a double-cross…someone always looking to gain the upper hand…similar to the kind of thing that made the Ocean’s Eleven franchise so popular. When you know that’s in play, it’s a little easier to see the setup coming from further out but Ritchie disguised his hand well so, even when you think you know what’s coming, there’s another wrinkle waiting to surprise you. There are a few plot points that are predictable but there is more than enough to keep you participating mentally and ultimately that’s a win for any filmmaker. It takes a lot to pull it off successfully but it certainly didn’t hurt to have a cast that’s absolutely loaded talent.
It’s hard to pick a favorite among this class but I’d have to go with Hugh Grant. It’s been a long time since his heyday in the late-90s/early-2000s but the slimy tabloid journalist, Fletcher, was an excellent role for him. It’s so far removed from the type of character he once popularized that’s he’s almost unrecognizable. Thanks to the structure of the film, he also serves as the de facto narrator (albeit only somewhat reliable) which really allows the full depths of the character’s depravity to unfold. You can just tell Grant’s having a blast and he leaned into it hard, delivering his best performance in recent memory. It’s still too early to tell but this could see him in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor down the road.
On the other side of that coin, we are treated to an excellent performance from Charlie Hunnam who goes toe-to-toe with Grant throughout much of the film, serving as the yin to his yang, as the protagonist’s right-hand man. I couldn’t help but think like this role that was designed for Tom Hardy but Hunnam took ownership of the character and turned in a surprisingly strong performance that was crucial to the attitude of the film. It’s been an interesting career path for the Sons of Anarchy standout who looked poised for leading-man stardom after Pacific Rim (2013). He’s taken a variety of interesting but lesser-known projects like Papillon and The Lost City of Z that were well-received critically but had almost no footprint at the box office. The soon-to-be 40-year-old even worked with Ritchie on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword which did significantly better than those other two movies but still wound up in the red by about $25-million. This was the kind of project that really focused on the actor portrayals but it remains to be seen if that translates into extended box office success.
When he’s not too busy making ridiculous commercials for Lincoln, Matthew McConaughey often takes on a role that reminds us he’s a very talented performer. He got top billing for a reason and, while he may not have the lion’s share of the screen time, he was definitely the lead role. Ritchie needed an ace in the hole, and McConaughey was his. Without his star power in that position, who knows where this movie would have ended up.
There were a lot of strong supporting roles in this film and Jeremy Strong played an excellent smarmy fuck. Arrogant billionaires are typically the antagonist in movies such as this but he brought a particularly unlikeable but undeniably charismatic quality to his character. Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery fit in very nicely with this ensemble. Her shrewd business attitude was the perfect complement to McConaughey’s charm and they totally fit together as the power couple they portrayed. And we can’t ignore Colin Farrell delivering a wonderfully Irish performance. He’s excellent and you can’t help but want to see more of him throughout the film. It’s the kind of character who could either be part of a sequel or spin-off if the demand was there.
Like most of Ritchie’s films, a good soundtrack is an absolute must. Chris Benstead composed some good original music to set the tone and manage the pacing but it’s definitely the song selection that stands out. Music Supervisor Matt Aberle featured tracks from David Rawlings, Roxy Music, El Michels Affair, The Jam and a yet to be released track from Bugzy Malone (who has a small role in the film) called Boxes of Bush that’s sure to be a hit when it drops.
When it comes down to personal taste, I tend to value originality and creativity over execution but that’s more of a jumping-off point than a hard rule. The Gentlemen has a really good mix of all those elements and has along with plenty of entertainment value. This is a quintessential example of a Guy Ritchie gangster flick but calling it a triumphant return to form for could be a hard sales pitch if it doesn’t perform at the box office.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of Ritchie’s earlier work, this is right there with those films. Even if you were only introduced to his films during the Sherlock Holmes era, this has a lot of those storytelling elements in play. Fans of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise should find some familiar enjoyment here as well. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing again.