Early on in The Gentlemen, would-be drug kingpin Dry Eye (Henry Golding) tells weed baron Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) that the young will replace the old. Pearson disagrees: The rule of the metaphorical jungle is that the strong will devour the weak. Pearson may be getting older, but he isn’t losing his edge; he’s still the king because he’s the best at what he does. Maybe that’s true within the world of the movie, but when it comes to Guy Ritchie’s trajectory as a director, it seems that the rules aren’t mutually exclusive. Ritchie is no longer the strongest beast in the forest, and he’s aging out of the game, too.
It isn’t that Ritchie is literally old — he’s only 51 — it’s more that his brand of humor, which might have flown in the late ’90s and early 2000s, has aged in an ugly way. Every part of The Gentlemen is classic Ritchie: Scoundrels of all sorts cross paths in an ever-widening web of crime, with sequences full of fast dialogue and fast cuts. And it comes with a racist streak that feels severely antiquated.
Pearson, an American who settled in London after discovering he could make a fortune there dealing weed, wants to retire. His plan to sell his marijuana empire to fellow American Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) is complicated by Dry Eye, who wants it all for himself. The saga is related to the audience via private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who wants to blackmail Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Pearson’s right-hand man, into paying him not to publish the rundown on Pearson’s crimes.
In the clearest evidence that Ritchie’s shtick may be starting to wear thin, Pearson’s gangster antics aren’t as interesting as Fletcher and Raymond dancing around each other. Grant’s charm, once used to make him a romantic idol, has recently been weaponized in a series of villain roles (Paddington 2, Florence Foster Jenkins, A Very English Scandal), turning him into the devil you know. That rakishness is at its peak here; Fletcher is an unrepentant sleazeball, mooching food and drink off of Raymond and flirting with him relentlessly.
Hunnam, for his part, makes for a good foil and straight man in a movie filled with large personalities, but not everyone in the cast fares as well. Notably, the Americans feel out of place. Strong, whose character’s Jewish heritage is constantly pointed out, seems to have been directed to play a gay stereotype, and his commitment to that exaggerated fey-ness is awkward enough to bring his incredible work on Succession into question.
McConaughey isn’t playing too far from his laid-back self, but his “all right, all right, all right” energy doesn’t mesh with Ritchie’s world. In a universe where outsized characters and fast actions reign supreme, Pearson doesn’t really register. Colin Farrell’s tracksuit-wearing gym coach, whose sole purpose in life is to ensure that the boys he’s training make good choices, makes more of an impact, even though he has a fraction of Pearson’s screen time. But Pearson is still treated with more affection and respect than any of the Asian characters who serve as the film’s antagonists.
They may be bad guys, but that doesn’t excuse the racist jokes Ritchie levels at them. As he introduces Dry Eye, Fletcher refers to him as a “Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese” version of James Bond (Golding is Malaysian-English), with a “ricense to kill,” and his cohorts are repeatedly referred to as “Chinamen.” What makes matters worse is that Ritchie seems aware that he’s traveling into problematic territory; a black character takes issue with being called “a black cunt,” at which point it’s explained to him that the insult isn’t actually offensive or racist because it’s meant with love.
Much like Ritchie’s take on the rules of the jungle, it doesn’t really matter whether that’s true (which it isn’t) if the principle isn’t applied to begin with. Dry Eye and his fellows aren’t treated with any sense of love, and an entire sequence is dedicated to how funny it is that one of his henchmen is named Phuc. Their lives, culture, and dignity are all dispensable.
Ritchie’s rowdy, kinetic sense of style — so compelling in Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — doesn’t pull the wool over viewers’ eyes as well as it used to, and the “good old boys” strain of racism running through the whole affair is dispiriting. To Ritchie’s credit, he almost succeeds in getting one over on his audience, but he’s shaggier than he used to be, and a few overly indulgent cuts slow down a film meant to move at the speed of a bullet train.
Fletcher’s ambition is to have his story turned into a movie, a framing device that occasionally serves up some laughs but mostly serves as a way for Ritchie to show off how much he knows about movies — and curb any momentum the film has built up. As Fletcher touts film over digital, Ritchie cuts to footage of a projector and a reel of film, and the aside doesn’t register as fun so much as it feels like dead air.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch remain fun, but they’re products of their time, and Ritchie doesn’t seem to have grown as a director beyond having more money and bigger stars at his disposal. He still knows how to have a good time — again, Grant is great, and it’s no small pleasure figuring out how all the pieces fit together — but Ritchie has to grow with the times. In the jungle, evolution is king.
The Gentlemen is in theaters now.