How much would my bro-na fides go up if I admitted that one of my great thrills ever experienced in a movie theater happened during the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times in the winter of 2001? I went along with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as yet another post-Pulp Fiction, post-Trainspotting attempt to make guns and/or fliply executed violence and/or UK accents seem extra-cool. Sure, fine, a fun movie, though in the back of my head I admitted to myself that it wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped. But when Brad Pitt’s Irish-gypsy-boxer entered the ring in the final stretch of Snatch, accompanied by a blast of the then-recent Oasis instrumental track “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” I was nearly out of my seat. It’s the kind of moment that the internet might well spoil and pre-digest today. In January 2001, I had no idea that Ritchie had one of my favorite Oasis tunes up his sleeve, using it with the exact same badass swagger as the movie a 20-year-old Oasis fan was already playing in his heart.
This is all to say that I have a soft spot for Guy Ritchie, mildly bad boy of the UK film scene and eventual blockbuster director for hire. Though the disastrousness of Revolver and Swept Away (the latter as yet unseen by me, so maybe it’s merely a financial disaster) indicated a downward trajectory swifter than the likes of Robert Rodriguez or Kevin Smith, Ritchie pulled out of his talespin with two hit Sherlock Holmes movies, enjoyably forgettable and forgettably enjoyable; made a genuinely zippy wannabe-blockbuster out of The Man from UNCLE, made a compellingly misguided wannabe-blockbuster out of King Arthur, and a similarly misguided but actual blockbuster out of Aladdin. Aladdin was his biggest global hit by like a billion dollars, but now Guy Ritchie is back, baby, with The Gentlemen: a bit of the old ultraviolence, chaps, in that it is mostly about mostly-English hoodlums punching each other, shooting each other, threatening to punch each other, or threatening to, well, you get the idea.
The thing is, Ritchie has been back before; RockNRolla was his supposed return to form in 2008, a gangster tale with the humor and cheek sapped out. The Gentlemen isn’t quite so dour–there are laugh lines aplenty, capably delivered–but there’s a certain hardness at its center. Not hard-boiled, mind, but something calcified, with some of the dead-stiff philosophizing that turned his Revolver into a barely-walking corpse. Weirdly, that sourness is owned and operated by one Matthew McConaughey, whose presence is typically both more pleased and more pleasing. Here he plays Mickey Pearson, an American expat living in England, making his living as an ambitious and successful weed impresario. But Mickey is ready to exit the business and spend more time with his beloved wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery)—though she seems plenty occupied by her car-customization business. (Telling, that she commands a fleet of all-lady mechanics… who have about a minute of combined screentime, almost as if Ritchie is admitting that he understands how women could easily be a bigger part of his world and wants to make the conscious choice to keep it to one per picture.)
Mickey is getting ready to sell his various secret growth and distribution centers to Matthew (Jeremy Strong), but he’s also fielding some interest from Dry Eye (Henry Golding), at the behest of Dry Eye’s older boss. But the negotiations are framed by Fletcher (Hugh Grant) a sort of freelance bottom-feeder who approaches Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) with information that requires Fletcher to spin a long, tangled narrative for context (which he has also conveniently provided in screenplay format). A lot of this stuff revels in the fun and needless complications of Ritchie’s earliest films, guided along by Fletcher’s rococo insinuations and occasional rhapsodizing about the magic of shooting on film rather than digital. (OK, Guy.) Though there is some violence, a lot of the movie is talk, and it’s a fun one to listen to, even if Ritchie’s insistence on putting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters (who are racist, to be sure, though not in especially interesting or important ways) is suddenly the most authentically Tarantino-esque thing about him. It’s all just more shit-talk for Ritchie, and a lot of it is disreputably entertaining; Henry Golding is a lot more fun as conniving gangster than a himbo, which is to say the Colin Farrell principle applies here. Twice, actually, because Farrell himself makes an appearance as the requisite Irish boxer, trying to keep a pack of teenage hooligans on the relatively straight and relatively narrow. When he fails, they make YouTube music videos of themselves performing a grime number whilst robbing one of Mickey’s illicit dispensaries.
Watching this amusingly wacked-out sequence, it struck me that 20 years ago, the gang of YouTube hooligans (or their pre-YouTube equivalents) would be more prominent characters in a Ritchie movie. Here, they’re colorful support, wrangled by Farrell, but far less important to the narrative than characters with vastly better-appointed homes and gardens. Hunnam—not even the kingpin, but his main henchman—begrudgingly entertains the sleazy Fletcher with a smoke-free backyard barbecue, grilling fancy steaks. Instead of scrappy strivers and lowlifes, Ritchie sympathizes with the richer criminals—especially McConaughey’s Mickey, who whinges on about how the lion must (get this) “be the lion” in order to, uh, be the lion. The metaphorical lion, in the metaphorical jungle. Just a slight calibration and this guy would be the pompous jackass
McConaughey lends him some baseline rooting interest, and that’s his job as an actor. But what’s Ritchie’s excuse? Why is he making a cheeky gangster caper that amounts to an enormously wealthy, white, not-even-English dude who makes time for grotesque revenge on a tabloid editor? (Eddie Marsan is in this, too; guess who he plays?) Obviously English tabloids can go fuck themselves, but I’m not sure McConaughey’s character has any high ground that the movie doesn’t hastily and arbitrarily pile up for him. (He deals exclusively in weed! He’s not like a regular drug dealer, he’s a cool drug dealer.)
That’s an awful lot of morality parsing, I know, for a Guy Ritchie movie that aims for a form of cheerful amorality, and truth be told, I was able to roll with much of The Gentlemen. Grant is a delight! Farrell is a delight! Dockery, despite being someone who was on Downtown Abbey, is a delight! Hunnam, so often ill-used in bigger movies, has a commanding scene where he marches into a drug den full of posh miscreants and firmly retrieves one of them on behalf of their family. Half the cast is stylishly bespectacled for some reason. Moral correctness is not especially the point of The Gentlemen, and the movie’s ending even regains some its playfulness by suggesting just how much of this is storytelling for its own sake, more tangled-up screenplay fodder for Fletcher or Ritchie himself. But the cheeky thrill of self-reference (hey, is that a Man from UNCLE poster?) can’t match the Oasis-scored mischief of Snatch, which was self-conscious, sure, but a bit less self-regarding. And maybe it’s just wishful thinking, the fleeting idea that Ritchie might be self-effacing enough to see himself as desperately for-sale Fletcher—instead of the preening, bloviating Mickey. Sometimes, The Gentlemen gives the impression that Ritchie doesn’t consider this a return to form so much as an insistence that no number of flops would dare issue him a comeuppance.