There may be a new sense of Hollywood swish and flick glamour to Guy Ritchie’s latest film but – make no mistake about it – The Gentlemen is a step to the reverse from the director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Forget Aladdin, this is cockney ensemble crime caper comedy through and through. Everyone has a riot, there’s language to make a sailor blush and marijuana at every turn. Not that our heroes touch the stuff. It’s all about the dosh with this gang of upmarket renegades and each one stands to make shed loads. As per his debutant days, Ritchie writes, shoots and produces to the lowest common denominator. Devotees will lap it up, while cynics wheel out that old sub-par Tarantino jibe. In the middle is a view that The Gentlemen is smutty fun, a tad offensive and undeniably fine tuned.
Of all those thoroughly enjoying their part in an old school Ritchie, Hugh Grant is far and away the most endearing. He plays Fletcher, a fantastically sleezy private detective, whose increasingly meta part in proceedings wins out by virtue of his unflinching revelry. On a roll of late, Grant makes the realisation of so grotty a fellow – fuelled on innuendo, he too is out for the big bucks – seem a flippant endeavour, when the reality is far from it. For every ‘darling’ he purrs, a chuckle awaits. For every surprise in store, Grant has a wholly unique facial expression to deploy. Would The Gentlemen work without Grant? Probably. Would it be as fun? Not at all.
Fletcher’s audience is Charlie Hunnam: Ritchie’s King Arthur and The Gentlemen’s Raymond. A swarthy chap – all knitwear and designer hair – Raymond is second in command to the business empire of mid-west Yank done good/bad Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey). It’s Mickey around whom the plot revolves, with his ploy to retire – by selling off his stately home drug network to fellow American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) – unspooling a network of chaos on the safari of black market commerce around him. Indeed, it’s a none too subtle metaphor that literally relates this chaos to the animal kingdom. Mickey is the lion and – without a hint of irony – Henry Golding’s Anglo-Chinese whippersnapper: the dragon. In Ritchie’s world, it is a mercy that all races aren’t subjected to such derogatory labelling. And yet, his is a script that still makes room for a white man to explain why it is not racist to name a black man ‘black c**t’. Be warned, the latter word splutters with alarming frequency here.
In such crass asides, Ritchie fails to earn the air of smugness that pervades his writing – and has for years. Flashes of inspiration do, however, strike. The plot, cooked by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, is tight and undeniably smart in execution. There is greater wit too here than an excess of f**ks might at first suggest. Lines like ‘I’ve seen how the sausage is made, now show me the butcher shops’ and an extended rumination on the name Phuc may play to the stalls but the timing is exceptional and there’s glee in the immaturity. Ritchie’s patter is well honed and unashamed to embrace the audience it targets, at the expense of a sect who’ll hate it. Note also the childish writing that scrawls across the screen, nod to ‘fight porn’ and wicked resolution gag involving one scuzzy news editor (Eddie Marsan) and one particularly rambunctious pig. As Colin Farrell’s endearing Coach quips: ‘she’s not the pig I would have chosen.’ The eyes say it all.
Closest of the film’s assets to meaning and insight is Ritchie’s willingness to muse on the passage of time. Two decades have flown by since his first films, whilst grey hairs and wrinkles now crease his antiheroes. An awareness of his own burgeoning middle age pervades Ritchie’s tonal approach to the film, exploding in unsubtle fits via disparaging presentations of a new young crop who play a rougher game than the old timers. As Ritchie has it, their lack of success belies the shifted approach. Here is a filmmaker who has learned much from his dip in with the big timers of LA but is resolute to prove he has emerged in total tact. In this case, that is to say: Ritchie remains refreshingly tactless.