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‘The Gentlemen’ is a problematic blast

| Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Theresa Tulsiak

Guy Ritchie has my number. Based purely on the strength of his first two features — the now decades-old “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” — I have seen every one of his subsequent movies, even as they’ve proven to be examples of increasingly diminished returns. The criminally underappreciated “Man From U.N.C.L.E” 2015 reboot aside, Ritchie’s forays into franchise filmmaking have been roundly disappointing, whether it’s his tepid take on Sherlock Holmes or the nightmare fuel that was last year’s “Aladdin” remake. Picture my cautious anticipation, then, for “The Gentlemen,” Ritchie’s return to the scuzzy crime capers that kickstarted his career. Armed with a much higher budget than his first two features could have dreamed of and a truly impressive cast, “The Gentlemen” is, for better and worse, a return to form for Ritchie.

“The Gentlemen” revolves around Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, an American expat who has become the U.K.’s number one marijuana mogul — and whose impending retirement inspires a pair of up-and-comers to gun for his throne. The treatment of those two characters, Henry Golding’s brash Dry Eyes and Jeremy Strong’s simpering Matthew, manifests the film’s ugliest tendencies. Each character is defined by a single stereotype that is played for cheap laughs, whether it’s the former’s East Asian heritage or the closeted homosexuality of the latter. It’s one thing for a single character to make a racist crack at Dry Eyes’ expense — it’s quite another for the entire cast to participate in it. By the time somebody refers to him as “Chinese, Pekingese, get-on-your-knees,” it’s exhausting at best and offensive to the point of distraction at worst. The same dynamic goes for Strong’s character, whose lisping, effeminate shtick hamstrings the most talented actor in the entire cast.

The other characters fare much better. Aside from a sleepwalking McConaughey, each actor gets his or her own time to chew through the scenery and Ritchie’s hard-bitten dialogue alike. As a general rule, the more comic training an actor has, the better he or she fares in Ritchie’s films; Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant, both first-timers for a Ritchie production, immediately take to the auteur’s unique patter. Grant, in particular, is the best part of the film. His sleazy, libidinous tabloid reporter serves as both the framing device of the movie and as a mouthpiece for Ritchie’s more controversial opinions (most egregiously, that Coppola’s “The Conversation” is overrated). In his handful of scenes as a youth boxing coach dragged into a drug war, Farrell flexes the comedic muscles he showed off in “In Bruges” and gets the movie’s biggest laughs.

Where those actors can wrap their tongues around Ritchie’s verbose dialogue, McConaughey’s performance conveys a Lincoln commercial level of pretension. It’s a shame, then, that he and Golding waste some of Ritchie’s best lines. “When a gorilla has more silver than back, it’s best for him to move on before he gets moved on” is a Raymond Chandler-level piece of crime-movie dialogue; when it comes out of Golding’s mouth, though, it lands with a thud.

Ritchie still knows how to create action sequences that snap with visual and aural inventiveness: a chase scene soundtracked by a children’s choir cover of Old Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” recalls the best of “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch.” Ritchie’s old trademarks — good and bad alike — pervade “The Gentlemen.” For every thrilling scene punctuated with orotund ripostes, there’s an exchange that would’ve been out of place even when Ritchie first arrived on the auteur scene. Ritchie’s return to the film style that made him famous is a mixed bag; rather than match the anarchic highs of his first two films, “The Gentlemen” will merely drive fans to rewatch those movies. Worst of all, the dialogue on which this film lives and dies may have given Ritchie a petard to be hoisted with: at this point, this gorilla probably has more silver than back.

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