Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dapper Goofiness and Violence Abide in ‘The Gentlemen’

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The Gentlemen is a dark, weird comedy about gangsters in the twilight of their lives and careers. Stylish and verbose the characters don’t talk the way normal people do but that’s fine Guy Ritchie has never particularly cared for reality much anyway. The violence like the comedy is at times abrupt, shocking, and uncomfortable. I had a grand old time.

Guy Ritchie has essentially remade The Long Good Friday without the immaculate score by Francis Monkman. It’s not an actual remake, to be clear, but the inspirations and similarities are vivid yet never detract from the film itself.  Ritchie is getting older, as we all are, and so are his characters.

Ritchie’s movies have a pummeling rhythm to them whereas The Gentlemen, while brisk and by no means slow, allows time for us to take a breath. Much like his characters, Ritchie seems concerned with his legacy to some extent.

There are no good people in The Gentlemen. I guess an argument could be made that Coach (Colin Ferrell) in his Burbury tracksuit and his motley crew of at-risk teenagers he’s taken under his wing are good. After all, they seem really only to want to train with Coach, make viral videos, and play pranks. Granted the pranks are breaking into Mickey Pearsons (Matthew McConaughey) drug lab, stealing drugs, and videotape themselves doing so, causing an avalanche of consequences.

But their readiness to commit violence, not to mention the ability to cross the line of human decency to such a degree that even Pearson’s Concierge Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) seems appalled; makes the argument untenable. They may not be gangsters, drug dealers, or sex traffickers, but they are a far cry from good.

Ritchie’s films have always had a bit of Charles Dickens about them. Which is to say story and plot have always been happily tossed to the wayside in favor of listening to a new character talk. A post-Tarantino filmmaker Ritchie has always been fascinated by his characters. In the current era of deafening explosions and blase computer-generated effects, it’s a joy just to listen to people have long-winded and convoluted discussions.

The structure of The Gentlemen is needlessly complicated but heedlessly so. Ritchie knows this. I know this. Neither of us cares.

Few filmmakers today could make the simple act of Hugh Grant’s auspiciously gay Fletcher spend some thirty minutes trying to blackmail Hunham’s Raymond while also trying to shamelessly flirt with him. Fletcher tries blackmailing him by pitching a screenplay idea-with an actual screenplay. It’s hilariously transparent and absorbing at the same time. Fletcher even tries to set the scene with “Picture it like a movie. Like a proper movie with all the sprockets and screws.” The film cuts to the interior of an actual projector.

The Gentlemen is one of those movies who is just happy that it’s being played. Confident in its execution it’s a movie that invites us to hang out with strangers and watch them make stupid decisions, followed by smart ones. Double crosses, human error, and wit help keep us enthralled.

Actors like McConaughey as the marijuana kingpin who wants to sell his drug empire and go legit, don’t hurt. McConaughey is one of those actors who seems so at home in The Gentlemen it occurred to me how wild it was that this was his first Ritchie film.

Michelle Dockery as Mickey’s cockney no-nonsense wife, Rosalind helps flesh out a dynamic which shows us how Mickey has remained so powerful all these years. We get the notion that Mickey and Rosalind are more King and Queen of the empire with Mickey asking and valuing her advice in matters of strategy rather than her being the typical Femme Fatale.

The ease in which characters say patently absurd lines such as when one of them uses slang for weed “white widow super cheese” is one of the film’s great charms. Unfortunately, there is an undercurrent of casual racism which is off-putting. Henry Golding’s character, for example, is named Dry Eye. Ferrell’s Coach says of one of Dry Eye’s men he has a “ricence to kill”.

You could argue that Ritchie is merely making a point that these are not good men. Movies populated with macho violent masculine men are often idolized by men when the characters are clearly not meant to be. One could say Ritchie is trying to make sure people understand that these are bad men doing bad things. Except he goes out of his way to clarify that for as violent and shady as McConaughey’s Mickey is, he’s better than Tom Wu’s Lord George.

Lord George is a sex trafficker, sells heroine, runs a prostitution ring, and other crimes-all of which Mickey, rightly, says are vile and despicable. So Ritchie posits Mickey, is a charming respectable bad guy while Lord George is not charming but a dangerous bad guy. It goes without saying the good bad guy is white and the bad, bad guy, is not. 

Ritchie even seemingly tries to head off any controversy. One of the men at Coach’s gym, a black man, complains that one of the white men just said something racist to him. Coach proceeds to explain to the black man that it wasn’t racist and goes on to define racism for the black man. Whether he meant to or not Ritchie has shown through both action and conversation, the basic problem of racism; white people define it and are the ones who feel divined to judge the veracity of the racist claims made by non-whites.

This scene and others like it are jarring. They are really the only bumps in the road to an otherwise smooth if silly ride. Still, it’s the most diverse cast of a Ritchie film since Aladdin. Though I wanted more of Dockery and the women in her auto shop, and frankly just more women period. But Ritchie has never really been all that interested in women, at least in his films.

The problem is the race humor only goes one way. White people are never mocked for their whiteness. Whether he meant to or not Ritchie doesn’t allow all his characters the same freedoms and liberties to “offend”.

Alan Stewart, who also shot Ritchie’s last film Aladdin, gives The Gentlemen visual pep without ever letting it overwhelm the movie. His camera has a way of capturing these bearded loons with a tinge of honesty mixed with a dab of disbelief. Stewart and Ritchie have faith in the script and the actors to let the jokes play out naturally.

The beauty is the simplicity. Fletcher leaving the bathroom only to walk in on two of Mickey’s goons carrying a body across the hallway and having all three stop and stare wordlessly. Raymond appearing at the other end calmly drinking whiskey and appraising the situation, “Is there a problem?” 

“No. No problem, sorry. Just forgot to wash my hands.” An excuse which allows Fletcher to walk away and everyone else pretend as if nothing happened. 

The simplicity of Stewart’s framing and the sharpness of Ritchie’s dialogue override any of the issues I had with the film. The dialogue flows like a smooth aged whiskey. Dockery’s Rosalind inquires if Raymond killed a boy who fell out of a window he replies with “Gravity killed him.” The beauty comes not from what is said, which is often clever and silly, but also in what is not said. Rosalind’s look to Mickey after Raymond’s remark telling him it doesn’t matter who killed him or how he died. What matters is they don’t know who the boy is.

The Gentlemen is a labyrinthine movie, oftentimes purely because it can be, which never drags or bores. Ritchie takes us on a tour of the landed gentry and the working class of the British underworld and as always infuses his characters with sparks of intelligence and lack of self-awareness. Characters in a Ritchie film never talk or even act like people do in the real world. But they do behave and speak like people who live in Ritchie’s world.

Image courtesy of Miramax

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