The new Guy Ritchie movie solidifies a theory that I’ve had for some time: that the mid-to-late-’90s were the worst times to burst out as an artist. It’s not only because the trends at the time were terrible, though some were. It’s not because it was the end of monoculture, when meteoric success was going to be impossible to replicate after the subsequent splintering of culture. It’s because, for whatever confluence of reasons, audiences are seemingly incapable of accepting artistic output that’s even slightly different.
Oh, sure. People might accept a Tusk from you, but what they really want is Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, regardless of whether you want to (or should) put in the effort to produce such a thing. And Guy Ritchie, like Kevin Smith, is rather ill-served by being asked to do the same shit he did 20 years ago.
Granted, it’s not like Guy Richie is washed up. He’s worked consistently since his debut in 1998, almost always upping the ante until the logical endpoint of making a clunky, anonymous Disney movie. But he hasn’t made a movie about fast-talking gangsters in extravagant suits calling each other cunts in 12 years. I don’t even know that his new film, The Gentlemen, exists solely because the people demanded it. For all I know, Ritchie has been itching to get back to his roots. But The Gentlemen was made for the same nebulous reasons that the Rolling Stones still squeeze out a record every eight years. It’s less bad than it is peculiarly familiar and pointless, a pure exercise in skilled stylistic repetition.
Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is an American ex-pat (and Rhodes scholar) who has built a vast marijuana empire in Britain. He has decided to retire and sell his empire to fey billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a transaction that becomes unnecessarily complicated due to the involvement of Dry Eye (Henry Golding), a gangster underling working for a major Chinese crime boss. Dry Eye also has his eye on the prize, which creates some level of hostility between the two parties. And that is intensified by the arrival of a bunch of hoodlums led by Coach (Colin Farrell), a short-tempered, fast-talking Irish boxing coach who insists he’s trying to stay out of trouble but whose actions suggest the opposite.
If Ritchie has learned anything in the dozen years since the mostly forgettable Rocknrolla, it’s that Martin McDonagh could have easily knocked him off his pedestal if he chose to. That’s why Ritchie both doubles down on the Farrell (who steals the movie) and meta-narrative horseshit (which does not). The latter comes in the form of Ferguson (Hugh Grant), a muckracking journalist for a shitty tabloid who shows up at the home of Pearson’s right-hand man (Charlie Hunnam) with a nearly endless amount of exposition to unpack. Most of it is also contained in a screenplay that he’s threatening to release unless someone hands over some money.
The framing device allows for generous helpings of skeezy Grant, an unfortunately extremely rare occurrence in the current cinematic landscape. But there are also heaps of high-strung exposition and purposefully vague storytelling. By hanging everything on an unreliable yet omnipresent narrator, Ritchie gets to micromanage his storytelling: place two shootouts that happen next to each other at opposite ends of the film, withhold information until it’s most appropriate etc. All this turns The Gentlemen into a sweaty genre exercise that doesn’t quite surpass the level of narrative and stylistic calisthenics.
Ritchie seems to have grown, in his middle age, into a GQ dad — not only in the overt fashion sense (although garish plaid-patterned suits, lil’ hats and attention-grabbing sprezzatura are featured prominently) but also in its laddish class politics. Fair point: Guy Ritchie movies have always been dude-heavy, masculinity-forward affairs. But as he hurtles into middle age, his dick-swinging peccadilloes have become increasingly dad-like. Above all else, The Gentlemen is about having a code of honour, standing up straight, looking your enemy straight in the eye, drinking 1,500-pound bottles of scotch, eating Waygu steak, looking down on hip hop and presumably cleaning your room (though this part doesn’t explicitly come up). Ritchie is seemingly trying to one-up his old pal Matthew Vaughn in the whole “what-makes-a-man-a-man” realm. He goes as far as to showcase a crew of petty criminals who film themselves committing arson, then rap over it and upload it to YouTube to cap off the whole thing with a little British xenophobia. (The two main “antagonists,” if such a thing exists in a Guy Ritchie movie, are Chinese and Jewish, which doesn’t help the whole football-hooligan-in-middle-management vibe.)
Frankly, criticizing a Guy Ritchie movie for being about dudes-being-dudes and trading in stereotypes is akin to throwing yourself into a bear trap. Those things are always going to be there, and are in fact building blocks upon which the film has to rest. The Gentlemen is slick and entertaining in the way that pretty much all Guy Ritchie movies (Revolver, Swept Away and perhaps Aladdin notwithstanding) are. Though I question exactly what he’s doing here, he’s clearly very skilled at doing it. The performances are pretty flashy and captivating across the board, save perhaps for McConaughey, who’s tasked with being the straight man in a sea of people doing more than expected of them.
The film is frequently pretty funny, though never more than when Farrell shows up. Farrell’s fired-up, impeccably dosed performance is everything that’s usually great about Guy Ritchie’s films. It’s a quick, funny, just slightly over-the-top presence that lends proceedings the feel of a heightened cartoon. Though I can’t surmise the reasons that pushed Ritchie out of his blockbuster comfort zone and back into the kind of thing that he started out doing, the heavily dad-ified air of The Gentlemen suggests a filmmaker who wants to prove to himself (and everyone else) that he’s still got it. I’ll give Ritchie that: whatever it is, he’s still got it. But a better question might be, does he still want it? ■
The Gentlemen opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 24. Watch the trailer here:
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