Rating: (2.5 stars)
There isn’t much that’s especially gentle about “The Gentlemen,” the new Guy Ritchie movie that the filmmaker’s long-suffering fans will be glad to hear is a return to what he does best: a funny, violent, rambunctious shaggy-dog story of a crime caper featuring an ensemble cast studded with colorful characters played by name actors. In other words, it’s more “Snatch” than “Aladdin,” which was only the latest of Ritchie’s misbegotten attempts to achieve mainstream respect by retelling someone else’s stories. (See his two Sherlock Holmes movies, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” On second thought, don’t.)
“The Gentlemen” centers on Michael “Mickey” Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), a brash entrepreneur from the American South who has lived in England since coming to Oxford to study as a young man. Mickey is now the smartly tailored kingpin of a successful marijuana empire, growing and distributing a potent hybrid of two strains of cannabis out of shipping containers placed on property he leases from down-on-their luck aristocrats. But Mickey wants to get out of the business and join polite society.
The weed’s provenance — it’s called White Widow Super Cheese — is worth mentioning, because that nonsensically picturesque moniker is just a small part of Ritchie’s playful fascination with words and language, which gets so baroque at times that it’s hard to follow. Mickey’s English wife Rosalind, played by Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey,” is described as a “Cockney Cleopatra to Mickey’s country Caesar” by the film’s floridly verbose quasi-narrator: a tabloid journalist impersonated by Hugh Grant, who unspools the film’s plot like he’s pitching a nutso screenplay. “Enter our protagonist,” he tells Mickey’s right-hand man (Charlie Hunnam), whom he entertains, like a captive audience, as the action zigs and zags forward and backward in time.
“In France, it’s illegal to call a pig ‘Napoleon,’ ” Mickey observes at one point, apropos of nothing, “but just try and stop me.”
Dockery, it should be noted, is, for all intents and purposes, the film’s only significant female character, and her role is exceedingly minor. Calling this testosterone-soaked film “The Gentlemen” is no joke. The story mainly concerns the efforts of various parties to either purchase or steal Mickey’s business. These include a group of Chinese underworld figures (represented by Henry Golding); a martial arts club of plaid-tracksuit-wearing rapper/robbers, referred to as the “toddlers” by their paternalistic, bespectacled coach (Colin Farrell); and another American businessman (Jeremy Strong). There are distracting detours, such as one involving the retrieval of the daughter of a minor aristocrat (Samuel West) from a sordid drug squat, but otherwise the tale pretty much stays on track.
If “The Gentlemen” is a satire, to some degree, of social climbing, it isn’t a particularly biting one. “I’m not anti the class system,” Ritchie said, during a post-screening Q&A in which the writer/director and several of his cast members took part, live-streamed from Austin. Rather, as Ritchie explained, the movie was inspired by the search for what he called “equilibrium” in the “vortex” engendered by the long-standing tensions between the uppermost and lowermost strata of British society.
As it happens, equilibrium seems a strange word, as applied to a film that feels constantly, yet amusingly, off balance, until its final moments.
Early on, there is a shooting, but who has been shot — and how and why and by whom — only gets revealed over the course of the film’s mostly entertaining digressions. It’s a surprise, naturally, but the twist isn’t really the point, or even the chief pleasure, of a film whose rambling delights are more akin to the gratifications of listening to a piece of jam-band music than storytelling. That is to say “The Gentlemen” is more about form than function.
But this being Guy Ritchie, there’s another f-word that’s probably even more appropriate here. In “The Gentlemen,” as Rosalind puts it, there’s “f---ery afoot.”
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, crude language throughout, sexual references and drug content. 113 minutes.