Morally reprehensible and maniacally mean-spirited, the ironically titled The Gentlemen is the best film Guy Ritchie has made in years. The director's long-awaited return to his favourite genre is the cinematic equivalent of Arvind Kejriwal giving up a life in politics and sitting down for an indefinite fast once again.
Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, who has always maintained that he isn't a 'gangster movie director', Ritchie is clearly in his element when he's telling overly complicated stories about the least complex criminals in the world. When he senses that his career has drastically strayed off course — his last film, in case you've forgotten, was the live-action remake of Aladdin — he immediately barges into a greasy den filled with geezers and goons. In 2005, after making the ultimate case for never mixing business with pleasure — he directed the unwatchable Swept Away for then-wife Madonna — he released Revolver, and when that bombed too he followed it up with RocknRolla in 2008.
Watch the 'Gentlemen' trailer here
Ritchie has since worked exclusively with major studios, putting his unique stamp on everything from the Arthurian legends to Victorian detectives. Although slightly derivative of his older work, The Gentlemen is an absolute blast from start to finish, with an A-list cast playing some of the most memorable characters Ritchie has ever written.
These are men — Ritchie typically doesn't have room for more than one X chromosome in his films — with names like Dry Eye, Big Dave, Bunny, Coach, and in an example of one of the film's least offensive running gags, Phuc. The film is otherwise quite insensitive, especially towards minorities. For instance, Crazy Rich Asians breakout Henry Golding plays a character who does a deed so despicable towards the end, that you'll momentarily be forced to reconsider your opinion about the rest of the film. In another scene, Hugh Grant says quite nonchalantly, "Chinamen upgrade faster than iPhones."
The one-time romantic hero has been cast completely against type, playing a smarmy private investigator called Fletcher who also happens to be, rather hilariously, a cinephile. The Gentlemen essentially revolves around the decidedly undignified Fletcher, who narrates the entire story as if he's pitching it to the head of a movie studio. He shares almost all his scenes with the very handsome but only moderately talented Charlie Hunnam, who simply cannot keep up with Grant's bonkers character choices, the most ridiculous of which is deciding that Fletcher should sound like Jonathan Ross.
The Gentlemen is one of the most inventive and airtight screenplays Ritchie has written in years, filled with trademark visual humour and snappy camerawork. A part of me, however, wonders why the film wasn't released in the fall season, where it would have gone toe-to-toe with Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Rian Johnson's Knives Out, and was instead buried in the dumping ground month of January.
It's a multi-pronged story, featuring more characters than can reasonably be kept a track of, and more subplots than you'd find in a Priyadarshan comedy caper. It jumps back and forth (and laterally) in time, and features a plot as dense as a loaf of undercooked bread. But it all boils down to one thing: bruised male ego.
Matthew McConaughey plays a smooth American drug kingpin named Mickey, who runs his marijuana empire with his wife, who's described (by Fletcher, of course) as 'the Cockney Cleopatra to Mickey's cowboy Caesar.' A rich American businessman (played by Succession's Jeremy Strong) attempts to buy Mickey's empire, alternately insulting and massaging his esteem, while a newspaper editor who was spurned by Mickey at a party retaliates by initiating an investigation into his dealings.
Had even one of these characters chosen to be decent in difficult situations, instead of reacting with insecurity, fear, and jealously, we wouldn't have had a movie. More than most other directors, Ritchie relies on the human tendency to be terrible to be able to tell his stories; there's very little redeeming value to these people. He has always displayed an iffy admiration for morally dubious men, to the extent of affecting a Cockney accent in real life. But having a sympathy for the devil isn't the same as begging for a seat inside his exclusive lava pit.
It's possible to have an emotional reaction to Ritchie's films, in the same way that it is possible to have an emotional reaction to a primetime news debate -- they're mentally stimulating, even if they aren't particularly moving.