If not for the nigh-unstoppable engine behind the careers of those involved, The Gentlemen should be a deeply embarrassing addition to their filmography. And it’s not because it’s a bad movie, necessarily; it is as competent as you’d expect from a veteran like writer-director Guy Ritchie. It’s more that it’s absurdly racist.
Well, racist and sexist and homophobic and anti-Semitic and kind of every kind of offensive under the sun; it’s just that the racist stuff is the most frequent offender. And to that end, it’s kind of indicative of Ritchie’s works. Left to his own devices (e.g., properties of his own creation), he makes tentative steps rather than seismic leaps outside his known bounds.
That includes the usual trademarks of tremendously kinetic and occasionally brick-dumb English criminals, high-energy cuts, and fast-moving action. But it also includes an absolute refusal to evolve his humor. It’s not as if this brand of jokes was fine back then (definitely wasn’t), but voices that spoke about movies at that time weren’t attuned to the necessity of that kind of criticism. To wit, the “equal opportunity offender” label just means you are an asshole to more people at once, not some kind of stoic herald of free speech.
It ranges here from hitting tired stereotypes to dabbling in casual misogyny to just throwing aggressively cruel punches at whatever’s closest. And it all tastes of being needless. In every instance I can recall, there was always a better goof to make without being offensive. Or even as offensive. It goes out of its way to be the way it is.
Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), for instance, is an American billionaire of Jewish descent intent on buying cannabis baron Mickey Pearson’s (Matthew McConaughey) entire weed empire. And while his heritage is brought up in almost every scene he’s even mentioned, you can picture the ravenous appetite with which Ritchie looks at this character in choosing between ridiculing his ancestry or his amped-up gay stereotypes. When, in a year following a calendar full of films themed around class consciousness, the billionaire thing is right there.
Then there’s the entire character of Dry Eye (Henry Golding), a Chinese gangster who would rather he have Pearson’s business than anyone else. Private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant), as the proscenium through which the audience views this criminal underworld, introduces him as a “Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese” sort of James Bond with a “ricense to kill”.” (Golding, for what it’s worth, is Malaysian-English.) And it doesn’t get any better from there.
It’s also obvious that Ritchie knows this is, like, Not Good. At one point, a black character is told to his face how him taking offense to being called, um, a thing is not racist at all. It’s not even offensive in any way. So very clearly Ritchie knows sensibilities have shifted, and moreover, he thinks he should explain why it’s okay that he hasn’t shifted with them.
There’s some sense that he might simply be losing his formerly unrelenting edge of his more youthful filmmaking years. He used to move at a frenetic pace that you could barely register his problematic characters, seeing the offenses whip by with a blur and nary a memory. But he’s slowed down enough here (occasionally feeling right at the cusp of indulgent) that all you can do is stare right into the pit.
The shame from a creative standpoint is that there’s room he’s carved out in his own film that works in a new a refreshing ways. Fletcher and Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Pearson’s right-hand man, interacting is so much more interesting than anything the gangsters do. (Grant embracing the underside of his indefatigable romcom charm is one of the greatest developments of recent cinema.)
But then again, what’s more indicative of aging out of your own career than refusing to develop what clearly works just because it’s new. The Gentlemen is a fine display of production. But it’s also a showcase of every reason why Ritchie needs to change.
Final Score: 6 out of 10