'The Gentlemen': Film Review

No weddings, several funerals.

Guy Ritchie revisits his London gangster-comedy roots with Hugh Grant, Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam and Colin Farrell among those caught up in the complicated sale of a drug empire.

Guy Ritchie's new action comedy The Gentlemen returns the 51-year-old writer-director to the stylized London gangster milieu where he first made his name two decades ago with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, only this time he brings the slickness and swagger he accumulated during his hit-and-miss Hollywood career, including this year's billion-dollar smash Aladdin. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast headed by Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery and Colin Farrell, Ritchie's homecoming is a fairly familiar affair, but also refreshingly funny and deftly plotted, with more witty lines and less boorish machismo than his early work. Violence still plays a key role, but mostly occurs offscreen, and the body count is surprisingly low.

First conceived a decade ago, The Gentlemen allows Ritchie to revisit that lurid fantasy version of Britain that has long been his comfort zone, where the English upper classes trade vice and villainy with criminal lowlife. While viewers may struggle to discern much dramatic depth or emotional maturity in this live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, it is certainly a guilty pleasure for the festive season, despite the occasional convoluted twist and off-color joke. It opens in U.K. theaters Jan. 1, with STX Films launching the pic Jan. 24 in the U.S.

The beating comic heart of The Gentlemen is Grant, archly cast against type as Fletcher, a sleazy private investigator who makes a living digging up dirt on the rich and shameless for his crooked tabloid paymasters. Sporting a goatee, thick-rimmed glasses and a deliciously silly cockney accent, the aging matinee idol appears to be channeling prime-time Michael Caine here, but with an edge of camp menace behind his jovial surface cool. His casting is a particularly acute audience-winking joke, since Grant has spent much of the past decade as a high-profile campaigner against gossip-chasing, phone-hacking newspapers in the U.K. He weighs up every wry line with relish, and Ritchie makes strong use of his deadpan comic talents.

In his early career, Ritchie was sometimes dismissed as a low-rent British Tarantino. The parallels were arguable then, but they make much more sense here. In common with most Tarantino films, The Gentlemen is soundtracked by a mixtape of pop classics old and new while the script is larded with verbose, discursive, highly mannered dialogue. One sequence, featuring a mobster locked in a car trunk, feels like a direct Tarantino homage. Running with the conceit that Fletcher is pitching this entire story as a movie script, the screenplay is also loaded with self-referential film jokes, including allusions to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and John Mackenzie's cult 1980 London gangster classic, The Long Good Friday. The poster for Ritchie's own The Man From U.N.C.L.E. even gets an audience-nudging cameo.

Ritchie frames the film's time-jumping, crazy-paving plot inside an extended duologue between Fletcher and Raymond (Hunnam), the wily lieutenant to Mickey Pearson (McConaughey), a suavely ruthless American expat who discovered his true vocation as a drug dealer while studying at Oxford. Over the subsequent 20 years, Pearson built a nationwide marijuana empire by cutting lucrative private deals with impoverished British aristocrats, topping up their leaking family fortunes in return for hiding his vast cannabis plantations on their country estates.

Now a moneyed, middle-aged, well-connected businessman married to cockney ice queen Rosalind (Dockery), Pearson is craving the quiet life and planning to sell off his vast drugs empire for a hefty retirement fee. But the deal is threatened by the shifty power play between would-be buyer Berger (Jeremy Strong) and his brutally ambitious Chinese rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding), not to mention a colorful Dickensian chorus of artful dodgers, boxers, rappers, junkie rock stars and murderous Russian oligarchs. With friends and enemies in high places, Pearson is also a juicy target for vengeful tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan). Which is where Grant's sleazy private eye comes in, playing a high-stakes game of blackmail and double cross.

A reliably mirthsome character comedy whenever Grant is onscreen, The Gentleman runs out of fizz a little in its action-heavy latter half. Farrell's supporting role as a kind-hearted, two-fisted boxing coach veers a little too far into zany cartoon, even by the simplistic standards of Ritchie World. A farcical episode about enforced sex between a man and a pig also misses the target, not least because that plot has already featured in an episode of Black Mirror.

Peppered with F-bombs and C-bombs, the film's undercurrent of knowingly non-woke humor is also slightly grating: weak jokes about Chinese people having comically rude names and mixing up English vowels, for example, or a digression on whether it is racist to call somebody a "black c—." These nagging details feel more lazy than wilfully offensive, but they are still oddly out of place in a film set in multicultural 21st century London. All the same, The Gentlemen is too cheerfully shallow to merit much serious critique. Overall, it fulfills its primary function as an effortlessly entertaining caper, with Ritchie and Grant both doing their funniest work in years.

Production company: Miramax
Distributor: STX Films (U.S.), Entertainment (U.K.)

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan
Director-screenwriter: Guy Ritchie
Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, Bill Block
Cinematographer: Alan Stewart
Editor: James Herbert
Music: Christopher Benstead

Rated R, 113 minutes