“The Gentlemen,” the new gangster picture from Guy Ritchie, offers a disastrous attempt to get back to the comic nihilism of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”
“The Gentlemen” stars Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an ex-pat American who started with nothing, made his way up the class ladder and sold marijuana to his wealthy schoolmates at Oxford. A few decades later he is a powerful London gangster seeking a buyer for his underground cannabis-growing empire so he can retire. When word of this gets out, it’s a jamboree of betrayal, blackmail and murder.
The plot of “The Gentlemen” is a rudderless retread of “Snatch,” and it lacks that movie’s structure and energy. McConaughey’s Mickey is supposed to embody American ingenuity and masculinity as this dour drug lord outsmarts his rivals and comes out on top. Ritchie snuffs out the ready-to-party exuberance McConaughey used to lift the otherwise slovenly “The Beach Bum.”
The picture centers on a colorful tale told by corrupt private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to Mickey’s top enforcer, the bespectacled but cold-blooded Raymond (Charlie Hunnam). Grant revels in the role and he goes gleefully over the top as he delivers the movie’s zingers. The primary targets are a Chinese mobster called Dry Eyes (Henry Golding), whose name and inevitable fate are meant to be funny but aren’t.
It’s faint praise to see Ritchie abandon the labored, visual-effects extravaganza of the “Sherlock Holmes” series and the kinetic but slick live-action “Aladdin” remake for this. “The Gentlemen” has the feel of a desperate attempt by a once-inventive director to regain his edge and restore some former glory.
“Snatch” took a Swiftian approach to satirizing mob movies by depicting small-time crooks ambitiously committing big-time crimes only to be done in by their own reckless hubris. In “The Gentlemen,” Ritchie plays it straight and dull; even the script’s nicknames (Big Dave, The Jew, The Coach) lazily rehash Ritchie’s signature touches.
The almost ceaseless narration sucks dry the stylistic flourishes: the staccato editing and the cavalcade of plot twists. The bulk of the film is occupied by Fletcher telling his story to Ray. But is it the real story? Several times, the action is freeze-framed at its climax and we learn that what we have just seen didn’t actually happen that way.
What’s missing are the virtues of a near-classic British heist movie from 1960 that partially shares a title with Ritchie’s movie. In Basil Dearden’s “The League of Gentlemen,” an American ex-soldier (Jack Hawkins) teams up with a former British Air Force officer (Nigel Patrick) to carry out an elaborate bank robbery. Dearden’s “Gentlemen” has stature, atmosphere, sharply etched characters, high-class humor and a boatload of suspense. Compared to this, Ritchie is simply out of his league.