This, my review of the film The Gentlemen written and directed by Guy Ritchie, will be a bit different from your average Collider movie review. I’ve seen the movie twice, once at a completely normal screening in which I took extensive notes, and a second time following a “cannabis-infused formal dinner” hosted by STXEntertainment. (A lovely time, here are Collider’s photos.) To clarify further and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve seen The Gentlemen stone-cold sober and I’ve seen The Gentlemen higher than Brad Garrett’s balls. And it was enlightening in ways I didn’t expect. Ritchie’s return to gangster cinema is a film about weed—growing it, selling it, stealing it, appreciating it as more than a casual high—that also seems specifically made to be watched in an altered state. Unsuprisingly for a Ritchie joint, The Gentlemen is oozing surface-level cool; it’s exceedingly handsome, well-dressed dudes being dudes, committing crimes and quips while ordering pints and smoking stogies. But it also demands that you relax, that you chill out, man, and float above the fact that underneath the perfectly-tailored suits is some distractingly casual racism, dated stereotypes, and ping-pong storytelling that Ritchie never quite has a handle on.
Matthew McConaughey leads the ensemble as Mickey Pearson, a self-made American who built a marijuana empire across the pond and is looking to cash out for good. Billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) makes a $400 million offer for the entire enterprise, but the deal comes on the eve of chaos for Mickey’s operation. Chinese mobster “Dry Eye” (Henry Golding) makes moves of his own to acquire the kush kingdom, a crew of breakdancing toughs raid one of Mickey’s production plants, and soon an all-out war is brewing before the deal can be finalized. By the film’s opening credits these events are in the past, and we learn about it in modern-day through a private detective/aspiring screenwriter named Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who arrives in the dead of night to detail all he knows about the ins-and-outs to Mickey’s right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) and demand $20 million to keep that info away from the major newspapers.
Anyone nostalgic for the rapid-fire ADD early days of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch will find a lot to love here. One of the more overwhelming senses you get from The Gentlemen is a filmmaker happy-as-hell to be back in his roots, firmly planted in a “one for me” project after delivering Disney a billion-dollar earner in Aladdin. The Gentlemen is honestly more of an amusing social event than it is a movie. The time-hopping plotting—including some movie-within-a-movie twists that seem tacked on for a lark—is not elegantly handled, but a movie will always be at least a little fun with a cast this loose-limbed and perfectly-bearded. Hugh Grant is the show-stealer playing against type as an endlessly quippy, hip-swinging scumbag. Colin Farrell, too, is doing the lord’s work as a manic, wide-eyed reluctant gangster known as Coach, as is Michelle Dockery as Mickey’s wife Rosalind, freed from her Downton Abbey stiffness to kick a fair amount of ass in a baller pantsuit. Really, the only cast-member who comes off “bad” is Jeremy Strong, who is sort of half-committed to a foppish lilt; not enough to count as a “joke”, really, but just enough to realize he was definitely going for something.
Part of the problem that comes with shooting for—and, mostly, hitting—the no-fucks-given free-wheeling fun of the early-2000s is that Ritchie also hasn’t evolved the formula at all for 2019. The movie has a great time zigging and zagging until it just runs headlong into its own casual racism, from the moment Golding’s character is introduced as “like James Bond…ricense to kill” to the overall idea that white weed emperors are fine gentlemen while smack-dealing “Chinamen” are the scum of the Earth. What is, somehow, worse is that it doesn’t even feel like Ritchie is trying for anything dangerous or daring. Storytellers as razor-sharp as Ritchie can get away with a lot if they back it up with substance, but he relies too much on late-night pub standards here, stuff that’d feel dated and cheap in 2009. It’s trolling more than anything, the cinematic equivalent of the 😂 emoji. Ritchie makes this clear in a scene that sees Farrell’s Coach excuse racial slurs as long as it’s meant as a “term of endearment.” We’re all just having a laugh here. Chill out.
Which is why seeing The Gentlemen in two different, uh, states of mind was so illuminating. There’s a dynamite-blast of a good-time movie hidden here, as long as you medicinally smooth out its rougher edges. But those edges are just too rough, like a burning cough that gets caught in the chest. You gotta’ sober up some time and The Gentlemen never quite does. Instead, it gets lost in a hazy longing for the past while ignoring a lot of what made those good old days smell the wrong type of funky in the first place.