Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Gentlemen’ Walks With Much Style Into a Maze of a Plot

It’s all about style with Guy Ritchie. His new film, “The Gentlemen,” is literally well-dressed, with its cast sporting threads provided by Indochino and popping open bottles of Flaviar. The soundtrack brims with cuts that set the perfect mood. Yet, it’s all rich stylings for a zigzagging plot. In many respects this is a fresh attempt by Richie to return to his filmmaking roots, preferring quirky performances and dry humor to his recent, big budget projects. The attitude is welcome but the story falters.

Describing the plot requires a map. A slick-dressed gangster named Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) walks into a London pub, orders a drink and next we hear a gunshot. Cut to a mystery man, Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who offers one of Pearson’s crew, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), vital information regarding a recent raid and plot involving Pearson’s marijuana empire. Pearson has recently been at the center of a standoff involving another drug baron, Matthew (Jeremy Strong), who wants to buy him out for an offensively low price, Russian gangsters who want revenge for a shakedown that resulted in an unfortunate death, Chinese gangsters who want to muscle into Pearson’s business, and yet another thug, Coach (Colin Farrell), whose men make an idiotic mistake that leaves him trying to make amends with Pearson. All the while we learn about Pearson’s rise in the British drug trade as an American from abroad who learned how to move amongst the English elite, while stuffing them with weed. 

Guy Ritchie, one of the late 90’s cult directors to emerge out of Europe from that generation impacted by films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Trainspotting,” had lost some of his wildness over the last decade. Blockbuster dreams came calling with the Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Sherlock Holmes” movies and an ill-fated “King Arthur.” Last year Ritchie’s voice was nearly absent in his live action “Aladdin” for Disney. “The Gentlemen” brings Ritchie back to the crime-infested terrain of the work that made him famous like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” It’s still a slicker work than those early, gritty adrenaline rushes. The editing rarely gets kinetic and the cinematography never becomes too experimental. Instead of inserts and Dutch angles, Ritchie goes for subdued frames where the cast could easily be advertising their fine clothing. As aesthetic pleasure “The Gentlemen” certainly works with the way suits, watches and good shoes are emphasized. David Rawlings’s “Cumberland Gap” opens the film with close-ups of Flaviar filling a glass. You can almost smell the cologne coming off this movie. Instead of snarling grit the dialogue is overly-sophisticated, with gangsters delivering arias worthy of an Oxford Union debate. 

Where “The Gentlemen” begins to stumble is in its maze of a plot, which can get so convoluted, and so crammed with names that simply following what’s supposed to be happening becomes a chore. Ritchie’s screenplay feels unbalanced between being very chatty and then throwing in random, strange events. Most of the first act is dominated by Fletcher narrating for Ray a whole buffet of events that could have simply taken place in chronological order, from flashbacks of Pearson selling dope to rich British kids to a bizarre plot development involving black members of Coach’s crew filming a music video inside one of Pearson’s marijuana storage facilities. This is apparently the event which triggers much of the conflict because once the music video goes viral Pearson’s operation is compromised. Even in real life gangland wars break out over much simpler affairs. How the Chinese mob and other associates get involved requires you take test notes to fully comprehend. Too many characters fill the roster, some who become mere side notes even as later on they gain sudden importance, like Pearson’s wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who deserved more development. 

In the middle of all this over-complicated plotting there are some standout moments. Even in Ritchie’s best films what we get is a gallery of memorable scenes within plots which never amount to anything too grandiose. Small golden guns are handed as gifts, dry humor is exchanged while chasing kids with compromising cell phone clips of a guy thrown out a window, and teas are spiked causing a mob boss to puke a river (while getting some on Pearson’s suit). Because the cast is so good they give a certain edge to the material, playing it straight like real criminals caught in odd moments. Matthew McConaughey conjures a combination of his car ad persona and the crooked broker in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” strutting in his suits while talking coolly about percentages. Hugh Grant is the most fun, giving his Fletcher the attitude of a total rat, so desperate to take advantage of what he knows he’s even written it all into an original screenplay. Colin Farrell is the most likeable, his Coach is that low-level follower who dutifully offers his services to the bigger criminals and sits in a corner while they hash it out. He also knows how to do this sort of comedy best, with a hilariously matter of fact tone.

Maybe “The Gentlemen” serves as a sign that Ritchie is getting warmed up because as an exercise it has much of his original spirit, however its choice of plot devices get in the way. This is a visually enticing film that works as a showcase of mere style. But with a filmmaker who built his reputation on letting loose it’s too restrained and complicated for its own good. It’s not just the looks that should count.

The Gentlemen” opens Jan. 24 in theaters nationwide.