Review: ‘The Gentlemen’ is most enjoyable when actors let it be a silly farce

Lifestyle | 24 Jan |

The new decade is here! It’s a time for resolutions and new beginnings—or circling back to old beginnings, if that’s more your speed. You’d be in (arguably) good company: after Guy Ritchie spent the 2010s shocking old properties with action defibrillators, he’s finally returning to the cockney crime comedies that made him famous. So how does he fare? Well, not as badly as the last time he returned to the genre, when a PR company had to invent a fake quote praising the movie because everyone hated it so much. At least The Gentlemen won’t require such shady business practices—it’ll only be hated by, let’s say, half its audience.

Once the title credits roll, The Gentlemen opens on a very confident tabloid journalist blackmailing the right-hand man of a drug kingpin. The journalist, Fletcher, believes he’s sorted out a conflict between warring crime lords, and is asking for £20 million to not publish his evidence. But here’s a catch: Fletcher typed up his findings in the form of a screenplay. As Fletcher narrates the screenplay to his extortion victim, The Gentlemen depicts the events as Fletcher saw them, essentially making this a movie within a movie. Even more scintillating—Fletcher’s imagination is as overactive as Guy Ritchie’s directing style. Could this be Ritchie’s metacommentary on his own work?

Short answer: not really. At best, it reaches Deadpool levels of self-parody, meaning it glibly acknowledges its own clichés before unironically indulging in them. At worst, it gives Ritchie an excuse to bathe in the filth of his worst tendencies—because it’s self-aware filth bathing, man. Ritchie’s penchant for one-liners devours the dialogue like a plague. Conversations play like cleverness contests, trading overthought wordplay until someone spits out something like “unlike the salt and pepper, the offer’s not on the table.” You beg the other characters not to sink lower, but oh will they try.

The meta-framework also gives Ritchie a pass on pacing his narrative. “Fletcher’s” screenplay only touches on the crime war’s turning points, eschewing the buildup and character detail that might come from the moments in between. The Gentlemen bounces between set pieces with all the intrigue of a chess game in montage, showing off only the taking of pieces and never the calculated movements that preceded them. These self-contained power shifts can be fun—Ritchie saves his creativity for the big moments, and The Gentlemen is a grab bag of big moments — but they don’t stitch together in any meaningful way. At times, the movie tries to connect its set pieces by withholding information for two minutes: an element of one scene will go unexplained, the next scene will explain it, look at that, the plot’s complex now. But these aren’t “aha!” moments like Ritchie wants them to be. In the words of genre filmmaking aficionado Dan Harmon, they just leave you thinking “Oh wow, that’s why the movie was stupid earlier.”

The Gentlemen is most enjoyable when the actors let it be a silly farce. Hugh Grant, hamming it up with an oversized cockney accent, isn’t portraying Fletcher so much as his actor character from Paddington 2 is. Colin Farrell gets to use his actual accent, which frees up the part of his brain that lets him be even funnier. The movie itself puts on an overtly British performance — it’s a London story, full of London-y Londoners doing London things like making grime music and killing people on the Overground. It also scrapes up English staples like homophobia, racism, and misogyny, and mostly for jokes at the expense of the marginalized, which is less endearing. Then it ends on its knees, quite literally begging for a sequel, and the whole ordeal feels a little uglier than you were starting to forget.

★★½   (2.5/5)

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