Guy Ritchie began by making London gangster films, and here he returns to that style, though with a different perspective. Instead of focusing on street-level working class criminals, the story revolves around the upper classes of the social elite. In that sense, it is a change of pace, but it also acknowledges its predecessors, as Ritchie pays homage to his. There are references to great British gangster movies of the past, most notably the Long Good Friday, but there is also something new here. The characters, the pacing, the whole narrative feels more restrained than Ritchie’s previous gangster films, and the dialogue, whilst maintaining the trademark lecturing wit for which Ritchie made his name, is considerably more natural and nuanced.
The action is kicked off by a drugs baron, who has climbed socially into high-level London society, arranging to sell his businesses to a fellow high-end drugs kingpin. After he snubs a tabloid editor at a party, the drugs baron finds himself the target of an attempted smear campaign, which leads a journalist to attempt to extort money in exchange for information to keep the business deal on track.
The drugs baron is played with reserved charm by Matthew McConaughey, but it is Charlie Hunnam’s second-in-command that receives the most screen time. The narrative is told, for the first two-thirds of the film, in flashback form, with the action taking place as recollections or descriptions during a lengthy conversation between Hunnam and Hugh Grant’s tabloid hack. Grant, an actor best known for playing gentlemen, is the least gentlemanly in The Gentlemen, and he slimes up brilliantly. This is a film of tweed-clad stiff-upper-lip emotionless men, with the exceptions of Grant and Michelle Dockerty. She rages through her scenes with grit and aggression. Also amongst the cast is Colin Farrell, who seems to be enjoying himself playing bored. What is interesting is the chemistry between the actors, which feels more authentic than previous Ritchie outings. Apparently, instead of a table read, the actors rehearsed with multiple cameras, acting out their scenes so the script could be refined, and it shows.
The Gentlemen is not high-brow, but equally it is not bargain bin trash, and a meta aspect adds interest to the script. There are moments of comedy, but also plenty of bigoted and violent characters. Ritchie has conjured a selfish world of selfish people, where racial and homophobic slurs are used to admonish, money is the tally for the strength of the man, and power is the hand of the one with the most nerve. I don’t feel it is Ritchie at his best, it is much better than Ritchie at his worst.