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The Gentlemen

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published January 23, 2020

Guy Ritchie makes a welcome and highly entertaining return to his comfort zone in The Gentlemen.

Mary Jane

The Gentlemen is a fun romp — squarely in the Ritchie world of quirky characters, profanity, oddly comic violence and wit. The way the story plays out, it's clear Ritchie's taken considerable weight off his shoulders and regained his narrative agility. That weight would be the burden of major Hollywood franchises — his recent efforts include the underrated Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which figures into a sight gag here), the criminally maligned King Arthur, the blockbuster Sherlock Holmes movies and the Disney billion-dollar box office bonanza of Aladdin. The latter was the one that saw Ritchie sacrifice his own, homegrown style wholesale in order to placate the mainstream sensibilities of the Mouse House.

With The Gentlemen, Ritchie is instantly back to his old self; quick cuts and stylistic whimsy rule the screen. In this case, much of that style is provided by the movie's story structure. That story turns into a surprisingly layered tale of cross and double-cross that ekes out the kind of extra twists that would've put Knives Out over the top.

The conceit is derived through the lens (a pun that makes sense in this context) of Fletcher (Hugh Grant, Notting Hill), who's looking to blackmail £20 million from an underground (literally) British business empire built on marijuana.

Fletcher makes his pitch to a bespectacled, well-dressed and well-heeled gentleman, Ray (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim), who is, nonetheless, not one to be trifled with, to put it politely. Fletcher uses movie-speak. He goes old school; none of that digital stuff, he's talkin' the chemical reactions of film-based storytelling in widescreen, anamorphic 2.35:1. He'll even throw in his screenplay of the whole affair as part of the deal.

Super Skunk

Fletcher's got the goods on Ray and his employer, Mickey (Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar) that eventually also throws Mickey's wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey), into the menacing mix. It's a sordid tale of flaunting numerous British laws — primarily the growth, distribution and consumption of weed, but there's also murder (accidental and otherwise), the possession of firearms (large and extremely small), seat belt regulations and a bevy of sinister shenanigans of the unsavory set. Brexit gets a wink as well.

After those franchise stints going back to the 5th century, the 8th century, the 19th century, and the 1960s, Ritchie takes advantage of modern times and injects some topical humor into the mix. Of course, the ridiculous state of human nature is a top target. Most surprising is a nice jab – a gentle ribbing — at "liberal white guilt" — a misguided and counter-productive sensibility that's taken on a comic level of absurd self-loathing Stateside. Apparently, it's an affliction of the upper crust across the pond as well.

To counter that loathing, Ray offers this simple (and sound) advice to a group of strung-out college kids on the verge of self-implosion, "Try the impossible: make yourself happy."

This sad-sack, guilt-wracked upper crust is the privileged elite of university students and ultra-affluent who squander their splendor on drugs and other self-debilitating lifestyle choices. Weed is one thing, but it's a gateway to far more sinister and destructive drugs — in this case, playing into the cast of shady characters who all want a larger slice of the booming — and, in the U.K., still illicit – weed business.

Bush

It's a whodunnit all wrapped up in Ritchie's unmistakable style.

Naturally, in this sketchy habitat, the dialogue includes the occasional F-bomb. One particular comical conversation puts the F-word in a round of verbal ping pong, thanks in equal measure to British linguistic seasonings and one character's unfortunate name.

But there's also a novel, expert use of the tried-and-true expletive. It's embedded in a listen-closely-or-miss-it delivery by Rosalind (a sharp, strong female lead) that — with all suitable apologies — simply can't be included here. It will, however, be added into this writer's lexicon of colorful expressions.

Not only is all of this a familiar creative environment, it's also a reunion for Ritchie and a few members of this ensemble cast, including Grant, Hunnam and Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes). These returning players are in key roles that hinge on having an understanding of Ritchie's modus operandi in order to deliver the right blend of humor and drama.

That said, Ritchie newb Colin Farrell (In Bruges) slides right in as a quirky boxing coach with an unflinching sense of honor. Other first-timers, including McConaughey, Dockery and Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), also rise to the occasion and embody their colorful characters with plenty of panache.

Note: The roster of producers includes a Matthew Anderson. He is not this reviewer and is no relation (to the best of this writer's knowledge).