I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Once upon a time — in my review of 2008’s RocknRolla — I said “Guy Ritchie would surprise us if he surprised us.” I was alluding to his then-seeming dedication to telling blackly comedic stories about modern-day London criminals. (As if that were a bad thing!) Clearly, though, this was not a steadfast dedication, given his subsequent attempts to turn a towering figure of myth into a Londoninium street rat, in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and his inexplicable (though, perhaps, bless’ed) lack of an attempt to deal with Disney’s Aladdin as the street rat he has always been in the director’s live-action remake of the cartoon musical.
All of which is to say: after further detours, with mixed results, into the worlds of Victorian consulting detectives and Cold War spies, Ritchie is, thank Christ, back on the beat of modern-day London criminals with his latest, The Gentlemen. And not only is this a downright relief — surprises are sometimes overrated — but as Ritchie ups his game with the subgenre here, the result is a hilariously sublime example of the crime comedy as a mirror on the legit world, full of sufficiently advanced crime and criminals barely indistinguishable from legitimate business and entrepreneurs, and oozing with crackling cynicism about culture and politics at large. Oh, and movies themselves come in for a snarky smackdown. Laugh until you cry, film nerds!
Behold the ultimate unreliable narrator: oily, disgusting London journalist Fletcher, as gloriously embodied by Hugh Grant (Paddington 2, Florence Foster Jenkins), continuing his own recent quest to ensure that the entire planet knows that he no longer has the tiniest fuck to give to anyone re anything. The Gentlemen is all about him trying to extort a boatload of cash from drug dealer and American abroad Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey: Serenity, Gold), via his lieutenant and British lackey, Ray (Charlie Hunnam: The Lost City of Z, Crimson Peak). It seems that a London tabloid has hired Fletcher to dig up dirt on Mickey, which Fletcher has accomplished — and then some! — but Fletcher is willing to hand it all over to Mickey and Co in exchange for a very reasonable eight-figure honorarium.
And so The Gentlemen is nothing more and nothing less than Fletcher relating to Ray all the dirt he has on Mickey’s business, in feloniously delightful narrative form. But that means we never know which bits of it we should accept as accurate and which bits are arrant nonsense whipped up to sell newspapers and generate online clicks… or, indeed, to beef up a movie. For Fletcher also has, at the ready, a screenplay about Mickey’s extralegal exploits, also available for sale to the highest bidder. Is anything Fletcher relates — to Ray or to us — actually “true”? Or is it just fodder for the morons listening and watching… and paying? Are we not entertained?
Oh, but it all gets so much better. We probably can take at face value the information that Mickey’s illicit-drug business is entirely in marijuana, and that he is fielding buyout offers that take into consideration the fact that it’s all surely going to go legal quite soon. The fine line between criminal and legit has never been quite this fine since the American prohibition of alcohol, and everyone here knows it. Did I mention there are Russians interested in Mickey’s enterprise?
And there is the real meta of The Gentlemen: not the self-referential movie stuff but the bald, unapologetic fact that all of this is a metaphor for Brexit. You know, the UK’s suicidal determination — undeniably promoted by illegal funding and fostered by shadowy Putin-backed operations and right-wing American money — to depart the umbrella protection of the European Union and leave itself open to exploitation from, *ahem*, other powerful forces. (It’s onetime conspiracy theory as 21st-century geopolitics.) With a sleazy faux-respectability that, perhaps, only the likes of McConaughey could bring, Mickey takes advantage, with only muted glee, of British aristocratic delusions about the nation’s place in the postcolonial world to further his business. (I’m not gonna spoil, but it is some seriously anti–Downton Abbey crap. Bonus snark points to Ritchie for casting Downton’s own Lady Mary Crawley, Michelle Dockery, as Mickey’s wife. You work it out.) And now Russians are honing in on it? At best it’s another American (Jeremy Strong: Molly’s Game, Detroit) who will be owning this big venture on British soil. Damn, this is some cold shit from a British filmmaker… but it ain’t inaccurate.
Still, never fear! There is plenty movie-movie distraction to be had. Here is new big-screen heartthrob Henry Golding (see: Last Christmas and Crazy Rich Asians) as a nasty, dumb comic-relief villain. Behold Colin Farrell (Dumbo, Widows) defying expectations as a tough guy who [redacted]. It’s all just silly cinematic fun! Of course it is.