Upon exiting Aladdin, the need to issue an APB for the Hatfield filmmaker, who we used to know, was immediate and intense. No whole new world was seen, and in its stead was a walled dead-end to stop Ritchie’s distinct filmmaking sensibilities in their tracks. But not for good, obviously; had that been the case, The Gentlemen wouldn’t be here. Guy Ritchie’s back, even if that comeback sees him dialing up to 11 his worst tendencies as a storyteller and his best as a visualist. Think old souls in new suits, folks with ancient thoughts but runway-ready aesthetics.
See it for yourself in the film’s first of many effusive dialogue spars between Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a private investigator hired by a tabloid, and a marijuana mogul’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam). The former is unabashedly sleazy; the latter never loses his cool. Both are dressed to the nines of biz-casual (in a move like the Kingsman films, the wardrobe Michael Wilkinson prepped is to die for). Fletcher wants to show Raymond how much he has uncovered about the operation of the latter’s boss, U.S.-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), as well as clearing up some details concerning Pearson’s many associates — shrewd Matthew (Jeremy Strong, Serenity reunion alert!), upstanding Coach (Colin Farrell), competitor-slash-cannon Dry Eyes (Henry Golding), and his boss Lord George (Tom Wu), to name a few — and his one femme — Mrs. Pearson, aka Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, whose line reading of “There’s f**kery afoot!” is legendary).
Framing the film with the investigation’s findings is a genius move from Ritchie — he now has the right to pull off every trick he has to throw you off and, only when it’s an opportune moment, he gets you back on track. Ritchie remains in control of the film and its narrative, while backtracking, over-advancing, paralleling and sprinkling in sightings of the “unreliable narrator.” The thought that you can get ahead of him is sort of an illusion. In other words, he’s Fletcher and you all are Raymond.
What’s the downside of channeling a tosser believing he has an edge over toff blokes? You are to receive—in full—the hallmarks of a tosser, chief among them racism, specifically anti-Asian. It certainly is bizarre to see the same Henry Golding, who advanced the Asian man (and by extension all Asians) image in Crazy Rich Asians, inhabiting this drug-dealing “Chinese James Bond” with a “ricense to kill.” (On a different note, it’s great to see the actor’s comfort in front of the camera continuing to grow over the years.) It is less bizarre, yet not quite the big ha-ha as the film would like to convince you, to see the name Phuc on the same level as the f-word (“Get the Phu…f*ck up,” Farrell’s Coach said) — as Dat, Dung and Bich have been twisted within earshot of this writer.
The n-word also has its own justification in the film. Incredible, really.
Also a repeated incident is Ritchie including a woman in the narrative just so there is a woman, only this time the Victorian-appropriate Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes is replaced with Dockery’s bloody-shoes-on and tight-blazers-game-strong Rosalind Pearson. Fortunately, Dockery is as capable a performer as McAdams, who despite a limited playground navigates it with entertaining sharpness. There’s no ignoring what might have been, though, had this flaw and the others not been there, for The Gentlemen could have been a flashy, verbose and characteristically Ritchie rags-to-riches pretzel-to-untangle diversion without channeling antiquated vibes that announce themselves so at great volumes. Well, it might come to a point where you’ll be deafened, and some sort of enjoyment will roll in (because there are things to enjoy, particularly a raid that its raiders also used to film a “fight porn”-slash-music video and Hunnam using charisma instead of bad-boyism). In a way, these folks are gentlemen until they open their pie-holes, and Ritchie is still trying to refamiliarize himself with the borough he adored… while its passersby are wondering when the businesses will match up with the times.