At the start of Guy Ritchie’s new film, “The Gentlemen,” Matthew McConaughey walks across a bar and orders a pint of beer. As he does this, “Cumberland Gap” by Dave Rawlings begins to play over a jukebox while he conveys his status as the leader of an illicit criminal kingdom, and, just like that, the viewer is enraptured. “The Gentlemen” may not be the kind of elevated prestige work that’s come out this past month, but from the opening frame, Ritchie knows exactly what he’s created: a transcendent crime thriller.
“The Gentlemen” follows the exploits of marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (McConaughey) and his assistant, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), as they attempt to sell off their drug empire to American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), avoid assaults by a rival drug boss, Dry Eye (Henry Golding), and attempt to outrun notorious private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant). As Ritchie’s triumphant return to the crime genre, “The Gentlemen” serves an example of the genre-bending excitement and eschewing of conventions that a master filmmaker can do when matched with a perfect cast.
McConaughey delivers a top tier performance as Pearson, playing into his public persona as a smooth-talking celebrity. As Pearson, McConaughey must radiate a sense of aristocratic control coupled with cold-blooded ruthlessness, conveying in every scene a feeling of invincibility.
At times, McConaughey’s performance feels similar to his brief appearance in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” or even his frequent Lincoln commercials as he swaggers through scenes and poetically compares himself to lions and kings. Since his role in “Interstellar” in 2014, McConaughey had been on a streak of average performances, buried in a collection of mediocre movies. With “The Gentlemen,” he’s able to recapture the charismatic energy that made him so famous.
Playing Ray, Hunnam’s performance is consistently in conversation with McConaughey’s domineering bravado. Hunnam has to be something much more restrained while still intimidating and overpowering his opponents. Hunnam succeeds in this by having an almost effortless chemistry with everyone on screen. In his scenes with Grant in particular, their sense of comic timing morphs “The Gentlemen” from a self-serious crime drama into a thrilling, original creation.
Grant as Fletcher is perfectly cast as a conceited, awkward private investigator with a flare for the dramatic. By framing Grant as the story’s primary narrator, Ritchie has found a way to harness Fletcher’s flamboyant, cinephile persona, creating a character right on the line between charm and annoyance. Grant makes the most of the role, playing into Fletcher’s eccentricities and serving as a great counterbalance to Ray’s reluctant silence.
But, like most of Ritchie’s early crime films, “The Gentlemen” has issues with poorly written female characters and glorification of hypermasculine violence. Though the role of Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s wife, is a step up from the nonexistent women of “Snatch,” her character serves as more of a hindrance than anything, obscuring Mickey’s pursuit. By Ritchie’s standards, “The Gentlemen” is also quite tame in terms of its violence, showing legitimate repercussions of death and, in one incredibly meta moment, commenting on an audience’s need for action and conflict.
The biggest flaw of “The Gentlemen” may actually be one of the performances: Strong as the American Businessman Berger. Strong heightens the character’s idiosyncrasies, attempting to lampoon the ultra-rich figures Berger represents, but his efforts are ultimately just distracting. Despite giving one of the best performances on television in HBO’s “Succession,” Strong is slightly miscast, weighing down his storyline and sidetracking the movie.
“The Gentlemen,” however, easily overcomes these issues based on Ritchie’s cinematic expertise. By coming back to the crime genre, Ritchie takes all of the innovative flare of “Snatch” and “RocknRolla” and combines it with a light, hilarious script for a near perfect product. With “The Gentlemen,” Ritchie has crafted something that’s both shockingly meta and emotionally rewarding, experimenting with aspect ratios, freeze frames and story structure while never losing track of the film’s heart.
After a decade of franchise films like “Sherlock Holmes,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and “Aladdin,” Ritchie is back as one of the world’s premier crime filmmakers. With an ending that quite literally begs for a sequel, hopefully Ritchie will stick to what he does best.