Jan 27, 2020
Welcome back for another Matinee Monday! This week, I’ll be covering Guy Ritchie’s new film, one of my favorite directors once upon a time, especially for classics like LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH, along with a host of English gangster films. He’s hit a rough patch as of late, but will today’s film be a return to form? You’ll find out in a moment!
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Here we go!
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Today’s movie is THE GENTLEMEN(2020), written and directed by Guy Ritchie, based on a story developed with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies. The film follows an attempt by American-born Irish drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) to sell his extensive marijuana business to Oklahoma billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). After an attack on one of Pearson’s growhouses puts the deal in jeopardy, Pearson must manage the repercussions, even as other players seek a more hostile takeover.
I remember when I began my career out of college, traveling to Los Angeles in 2001 for a consulting gig, where I met one of my good friends, who was also a fan of movies. Movies hadn’t yet moved to streaming services, but he had grown up closer to Chicago than I had, and as such, had access to a much more extensive selection of films than either my corn town or state university rental stores had to offer. So, once we got to talking about movies, he asked if I knew about Guy Ritchie, and I said no, and his jaw hit the floor. So, that weekend I went to our rental store in Denver, checked out LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) and SNATCH (2000), and immediately fell in love with UK gangster films as a whole. Every few years, Ritchie would put out another gangster picture, including REVOLVER (2005) and ROCKNROLLA (2008). There was also SWEPT AWAY (2002), but we don’t talk about that one.
Ritchie’s star was really on the rise when he was given the green light for his SHERLOCK HOLMES franchise, which completed two films before Robert Downey, Jr. disappeared into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opened up his schedule to pursue a number of mainstream films, all of which only did okay critically speaking, including THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and strangely, the recent live-action adaptation of ALADDIN (2019).
It seems like a strange direction for the previous monarch of UK gangster films, but that’s because other things have been in the works, most notably the successful “Snatch” television series, expanding on the story from the 2000 film in the same way the “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” television series followed the 1998 film. And clearly, that has most recently influenced today’s film, THE GENTLEMEN, a return to form for Ritchie, but in some ways, maybe from a bygone era.
There are a lot of things I liked about Ritchie’s gangster films, but most especially his combination of characters and story he brings to whatever project. THE GENTLEMEN is driven by both characters and story, told on multiple levels. Initially, the story begins as a conversation between Pearson’s reserved right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam), and an almost unrecognizable Hugh Grant as the hilarious, pansexual reporter Fletcher, who has stumbled across the deal to sell Pearson’s operation. In fact, Fletcher playfully narrates the story, which he’s also developed as a script, and which allows Ritchie to engage in multiple homages to film-making as a whole, including a reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s surprise hit, 1974’s THE CONVERSATION (Episode #091).
The story takes a little bit to get going, especially as Fletcher’s narration needs to put a lot of chess pieces on the board, and on multiple levels. Pearson interacts with the big dogs, like Matthew, and the up and coming Asian gangster, Dry Eye (Henry Golding), which leaves the supporting and adjacent cast largely to deal with the repercussions, often to violent and comedic effect. Everything escalates, however, after the growhouse gets attacked, involving a group of ruffians known as the Toddlers, who are trained by their coach named... well, Coach, played by Colin Farrell in one of his best performances. The cast is excellent. Once all the pieces are on the board, the film then steadily and delightfully accelerates towards its final destination.
Every viewer will need two key traits, however, to extract the maximum enjoyment out of this film. First, you cannot be squeamish when it comes to graphic subject matter, especially sex and violence. THE GENTLEMEN does not pull any punches with its violence, sometimes graphic and often extreme. That’s a staple for Ritchie gangster films, though, and while it can be gruesome, it is never really torturous. It’s actually a nice balance of scary calm, instant escalation, and real gangster shit. But it is not going to be for everyone.
Second, however, is that you cannot be easily offended, and it’s here where I had quite a few problems with the film. THE GENTLEMEN is also awash with sexist, racist, and homophobic humor. Sometimes it’s done very well, like a direct conversation about racism between Coach and one of the Toddlers. Sometimes it’s done almost purely for shock value, or in a mistaken attempt at realism, especially the anti-Asian and homophobic jokes that did absolutely fuck all for the story. With violence we know the people on screen are not actually being hurt, but offensive comments also target people in the audience. I can tolerate the cultural differences in the UK regarding the impact of the c-word, which also permeates the film. But I can’t accept the same anti-Asian and homophobic tropes seen in the film industry since its founding.
THE GENTLEMEN is a return to Guy Ritchie’s UK gangster roots, a violent film set in the modern day influenced perhaps too much by the social norms of yesteryear. An excellent cast and a strong story end up struggling with needlessly sexist, racist, and homophobic dialogue, which can sometimes hit upon insight, but often feels injected purely for shock value. Fans of Ritchie’s gangster films, who are not squeamish with violence or easily offended by bigoted dialogue, will definitely enjoy this film. Everyone else needs to know this is Ritchie back in his independent roots, not his most recent string of accessible mainstream films.
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
One Movie Punch: 7.8/10
THE GENTLEMEN (2020) is rated R and is currently playing in theaters.