Guy Ritchie’s latest British gangster yarn, “The Gentlemen,” opens with a bartender pulling a beer tap printed with a logo reading: “Gritchie’s English Lore.” It’s oh-so-appropriate branding for this return to roots for Ritchie, who burst onto the scene in the late ’90s with the rollicking London crime flick “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”
With “The Gentlemen,” co-written with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, Ritchie invites the audience to belly up to his bar for a full pint of his signature brew: a wordy, bloody, Cockney-accented blend of colorful criminals. As you might expect, despite the title, these gentlemen aren’t gentlemanly in the least.
This time, Ritchie expands his horizons to England’s upper crust (the “toffs,” if you will). The lords and ladies are a means to an end for the protagonist, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American Rhodes scholar-turned-weed dealer who has worked out a deal with the landed gentry. They have the land he needs for his grow operation; he has the money they need to sustain their titled lifestyles. Now Mickey wants to get out of the game, and he’s trying to sell his organization to the highest bidder. Will it be the fey Jewish billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) or the aggressive young Chinese upstart Dry Eye (Henry Golding)?
It’s not just the tale of a simple sale, though. It’s recounted by an opportunistic private eye, Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who has turned up on the doorstep of Mickey’s right hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), hoping to sell his highly embellished version to Mickey for a higher price than the local tabloid has offered. Fletcher has even helpfully written it all into a screenplay, in a small bit of self-reflection about storytelling, as the saga grows wilder and wilder in Fletcher’s telling.
It can be easy to be swept away by all the beautiful people, unreliable narrators, classic rock needle drops, wild costumes and regional accents. Ritchie still has undeniable attitude and swagger in spades. But kick the tires and you’ll start to realize the story’s a lemon. It’s fairly simple underneath the layers of unreliable narrators and unnecessarily extraneous plot twists, which end up having all the intrigue of a potato.
Story shortcomings can be forgiven. But the insidious and lazy cultural stereotypes Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies overly rely on are too unfortunate to be excused. It’s true that depiction does not equal endorsement, and unsavory bad guy types aren’t known for their sensitivity. But it’s impossible to ignore how cavalierly racist the film is toward the Chinese gang members Dry Eye and Lord George (Tom Wu), and how the film’s villains are coded as rapacious gay predators. That many racial epithets can’t be swept away as merely rough British slang.
Colin Farrell is predictably fantastic as a track-suited boxing coach whose students raid one of Pearson’s secret spots. The resulting music video they film, toplined by British grime MC Bugzy Malone, is easily the highlight of the film. Farrell’s Coach, a loyal, protective tough guy with a rigid (if untraditional) moral code is an oddball breath of fresh air. He’s more like one of the rough and tumble characters from “Snatch,” rather than the slick and slimy monied likes of Pearson. One wonders what the film would have been like centered around him, or even around Pearson’s cool Cockney wife, Roz (Michelle Dockery). But “The Gentlemen” is so blinkered by its outdated (and often offensive) alpha male perspective that it’s blind to the elements that could have made it great.