Dir: Guy Ritchie. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant. 18 cert, 113 mins.
Being an “equal opportunity offender” doesn’t magically excuse racism. You’d think writer-director Guy Ritchie would be aware of this in 2019. And yet, here we have The Gentlemen, in which an all-star cast repeat racial slurs under the delusion that its standard practice for a no-holds barred comedy about shady men and their even shadier dealings. In truth, Ritchie’s ultra-British gangster films have always walked a thin line between their boys-will-be-boys flippancy and plain cruelty – take Snatch’s aggressive stereotyping of Irish Travellers as nonsense-talking fighters and layabouts, despised and degraded by society. But The Gentlemen seems to be the angriest of all Ritchie’s films.
Surprisingly, it has an American as its lead: Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), a man who started with nothing but soon inveigled his way into the upper classes. At Oxford, he became a reliable source of marijuana for his moneyed schoolmates. Fast-forward a few decades and he now has his own drug empire. But when word spreads that he’s looking to cash out and retire, the vultures start circling. Murder, blackmail and betrayal become the orders of the day.
But this isn’t an anti-establishment diatribe, poking fun at the landed gentry and anyone who clings mercilessly onto power – it’s an act of pure nihilism, fuelled by rudderless rage. Jews, women, the working class, gay people, black people, the entirety of East Asia – every imaginable demographic gets their moment to be targeted and denigrated. The only thing The Gentlemen finds worth celebrating is the bravado of white masculinity, as Mickey repeatedly tricks his enemies and comes out on top. The label of “equal opportunity offender” doesn’t quite ring true when you label yourself as exempt from parody.
Neither is this excusable under the banner of character authenticity. The film is structured around a colourful retelling by tabloid journalist Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to one of Mickey’s cronies, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam). Considering his acrimonious relationship with certain sectors of the press, the actor's clearly revelling in the role. Grant’s accent is an impression of a Michael Caine impression and his goatee, leather jacket, and tinted glasses mark the height of dirtbag fashion. He’s practically been built to deliver punchlines and is handed the lion’s share of the worst ones. Early on, he introduces Henry Golding’s Dry Eyes as a “Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese” Bond-type, before swapping the “l” for an “r” in the phrase “licence to kill”. There’s no doubt Ritchie intends for his audience to laugh here.
The Gentlemen marks Ritchie’s first gangster film in over a decade, with the filmmaker having since shifted to family-friendly fare such as Sherlock Holmes and the live-action Aladdin remake. Is this a desperate crawl back to some ill-conceived idea of the director’s glory days? Despite small attempts to stay relevant (there’s a Brexit joke), the film can’t help but lazily rehash Ritchie’s trademark flourishes – there’s the same manic editing style and constant cavalcade of the C-word. What’s missing is any of the genuine grittiness that made Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels worth paying attention to in the first place. The Gentlemen feels long past its sell-by date.
The Gentlemen is released in UK cinemas on 1 January