I am finding myself in a bit of a cinematic pickle these days.
It’s no secret that I am beyond bothered by Hollywood’s lack of originality. It seems like the vast majority of new releases are either cross-media adaptations – from videogames or books – or re-makes of films that did (remotely) well a few decades ago. What’s so bothersome about this trend is that very few properties spring to mind where the creators show some actual care and interest in the story and its characters. Little Women would be a recent example of such an exception. Instead, we’re greeted with one blatantly shameless cash grab after another.
So when I first saw the trailer for The Gentlemen, I was surprised by how such a celebrity cast would fit into what is hinted to be an action-packed battle of wits between England’s biggest players in the [illegal drug scene]. If not a novel concept, the movie at least promises some originality in its merging of the gangster flick with the growing marihuana economy of Europe today.
But what looks like a witty, comedic romp in the trailer turned out to be a crushing disappointment in full-length. And while I’m grateful for the existence of an original property, I’m still left saying “guys, not like that!”
The film was released in Austria only a few weeks ago, so this might be old news to readers form other corners of the world. Nonetheless, spoiler warning from here on!
Full disclosure, all of the characters in this movie were excessively tropey and one-dimensional, I needed to have a list of names by my side as I was writing this.
The layout of The Gentlemen is the story-within-a-story kind, that is so often used in detective tales where the smartest person in the room narrates past events to the audience until we’re all caught up to the present moment. Here, that role is filled by Fletcher (Hugh Grant), an investigative journalist who sells his integrity to the highest bidder. During a nightly visit to the big kahuna’s right hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam), he lays out what lead to the current power dynamics among England’s biggest drug lords. The events start with a friendly business takeover but swiftly plunge into back-stabbing deals with the Chinese mafia and a brush with a group of fame-hungry thieves, until it all culminates in a kidnapping by Russians.
Big kahuna, of course, is none other than Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson. Frankly, a small part of me wanted to watch this England-set movie solely for the entertainment of seeing McConaughey struggle his way through a British accent. No dice, though, because his character is a US immigrant. He runs a wide-spread marihuana production empire situated on various aristocratic estates whose owners he has firmly in his pocket. But, as any hard-hitting criminal eventually would, Mickey announces his upcoming retreat into uneventful retirement. And that is where the issues of The Gentlemen begin, because the ensuing battle to fill this power vacuum is unbearably contrived.
The movie tries to present each scene as one tiny, yet highly impactful, step towards the climax. A sort of call to caution that even the smallest detail can ripple out to have unforseen effects. For instance, Coach (Colin Farrell) learning of his team’s mistake leads to an apology leads to owing a favor leads to, ultimately, Mikey’s rescue. And it would be a great tension-building device and encourage the audience to pay attention to small details. However, the movie completely fumbles the setup of so many of these plotlines that they look ridiculous.
Like, ah, yes, it’s the middle of the story and this aristocratic family is introduced whom Mickey feels responsible for. So Ray needs to rescue their daughter from a drug den in which the guy with the least amount of dialogue stumbles off a balcony (for no goddamn reason, it’s so fucking fake) and dies, but then we find out he’s not actually a strung-out druggie (despite what he looked like) but the boarding school-attending son of a wealthy Russian who then apparently finds out whom Ray works for and they kidnap Mickey for five seconds before the Coach’s crew shoots straight at the car, killing the Russians but Mickey somehow survives.
And this is merely one of the film’s side plots which then artificially weaves into the main story toward the end, solely so it can seem like there was any sort of stake in this plotline at all.
And that is ultimately my biggest gripe with The Gentlemen: it vehemently claims to be smarter than anything that came before but has nothing to back that up. The smartest thing about it is the introduction to Mickey’s underground marihuana operation supported by England’s elite. But the film’s brains rapidly go downhill from there.
It is a constant 1v1 between all major characters and how they are playing one another, “out-smarting” one another. What is left after you strip away the bare minimum of stereotypical traits that most characters are imbued with – like the offensively gay-coded Fletcher – you are left with a variation of the same trope SIX times.
It’s the James Bond type, without the charm but with a little extra “badassery” because they are self-employed criminals “that don’t answer to no one”. It’s exhausting, frankly. Did we really need 113 minutes of condescending smiles, no-nonsense attitudes, and quippy one-liners delivered in the acting range of, well, Matthew McConaughey? Really surprised I didn’t hear the line “it’s business, nothing personal”. Apparently, this movie believes the gentleman criminal lets actions speak for themselves and therefore needs no personality.
But while this movie certainly brands itself as character-focused one, perhaps the plot is so enticing that it can still win people over?
If there had been any plot to speak of, I’d consider it. Aside from the spectacle described above and the quick jumps from one scene to the next, The Gentlemen offers zero consistency. Things happen, people die, the tension is pretty consistent, and then it ends. There is no resolution to the Russians nor to the business takeover nor to the impending gang war. Let’s not even mention the slew of interesting groups/characters/details introduced that are never mentioned again. The film ends with Fletcher presenting the events of the story to a movie producer and then getting kidnapped by Ray. That’s it. The last pin prick in the already deflated narrative of The Gentlemen. Has me wondering if we’re looking at a sequel somewhere in the future.
I would praise the film for its cinematography and set design. But those positive aspects can’t really hold their own when the audience is distracted by atrocious eyeroll-worthy dialogue, childish yet dusty performances, shocking (but nothing else) deaths, and editing so episodic that you might as well watch an entire Netflix series in one go.
Truly, the only things this movie has going for it are the celebrity cast and being pure wish-fulfillment for its target audience – white dudes in aspiration of that coveted “alpha” energy with a little dollop of class. Except that class is presented as wearing three-piece suits and acting smug.
I say “white” because the POC in this movie are presented as either hot-headed and impulsive, or weak and unable to control their own staff. Or glorified goons. The white guy protagonists, exclusively, are the intellectual and powerful key players that you don’t wanna mess with. Oh, and let’s not forget the barrage of slurs. So edgy.
And I say “dudes” because there is precisely one woman in this movie with anything to do and she is the quintessential femme fatale fantasy. Rosalind Pearson (Michelle Dockery) is successful and confident but really only there for her sex-appeal. Not to get too analytical, but there is certainly something to be said about the shoehorning in of attempted rape into her plot. As if it were the only logical climax in the arc of a character who has “sexy” as her core trait. The villanous Chinese (aspiring) kingpin is about to defile this pinnacle of womanhood but, just in time, the leading man shows up, after going through metaphorical fire, to rescue her. Yep. Sounds positively James Bond-ian to me. Doubtful that Rosalind – or any part of this movie – was intended as the hook for a female audience.
I gotta admit that The Gentlemen is likely not to be taken entirely seriously. But even as a parody, I’m left asking what exactly the point was. Is it celebrating gangster flicks? Then why not give the characters a few memorable qualities, make the protagonist more of a menace. Show some stakes that aren’t murder or rape. The movie certainly wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy. And if its only intent was to shock, then semi-well done, I guess, but, wow, what a lukewarm attempt. The Gentlemen fails on so many levels that I’d really advise you to not waste your time with it, if you haven’t already. Not surprised I haven’t heard a lot of buzz around it.