When was the last time you watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? If you remember Guy Ritchie’s debut hitting American screens back in the spring of 1999, you might recall how familiar it felt — we’d already spent most of the decade watching smooth criminals in clever, chatty caper flicks. But this Cockney variation on postmodern pulp stood out among the many Cinema Tarantino pretenders of the day, threading in nods to mod U.K. classics (The Italian Job, Performance), vintage London gangster flicks (The Long Good Friday), and East End hard-men chic. The aesthetic was Krays-y, sexy, Britannia cool. The filmmaking was dynamic. Its energy, which made so much derivative material feel so fresh, was undeniable. Even if the overall vibe of lads-mag loutishness was occasionally off-putting, you couldn’t help but feel like Ritchie had his own voice.
What followed were a few other regional tough-guy yarns, some good (Snatch), some bad (Revolver), some not even worth a Butcher’s (RocknRolla). Ritchie eventually settled in to being a famous pop-star’s partner and a reliable director of franchises, TV show intellectual property redos, and Disney live-action remakes. You got the sense, however, that the idea of putting verbose thugs and gun-toting mad dogs in the middle of trouble was never really far from his heart. People will say The Gentlemen is a return to form, which suggests Ritchie has triumphantly come full circle. That’s half right. More accurately, he’s gone back to a form that was long past the point of diminishing returns and decided to give it another go-round for old times’ sake. The result isn’t exactly Lock, Stock Redux. Only the “stock” part remains.
Meet Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey). An American Rhodes scholar who found out during his college years that a green thumb could gain him entry into upper-crust society and an empire, he’s now the man behind every “sticky bush” transaction in Europe. He has a lovely wife (Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery) who’s the “Cockney Cleopatra to his cowboy Caesar,” a loyal right-hand man named Ray (Charlie Hunnam), a vast network of underground grow houses and all-access entry into the world of the gentry. Life is good, other than the fact that people are trying to take over his business, blackmail him, and/or kill him.
Among those folks watching the throne: A fellow ex-pat (Succession‘s Jeremy Strong, playing the sort of camp, fey caricature that would embarrass John Waters) out to purchase the whole operation for several billion dollars; an up-and-coming Asian gangster (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding) who wants part of the action; several Russian underworld types with their own reasons to be angry with him; and a sleazy tabloid bloodhound (Hugh Grant) hoping to parlay a lot of incriminating evidence into a big payday. There’s also a group of teen MMA fighters led by a tracksuited Colin Farrell that figure into the mix, never mind how. Luckily, Pearson is the type of alpha criminal who thinks three moves ahead. When that doesn’t work, he just taps into his vicious side. “There’s only one rule in the jungle,” he snarls to a fellow no-goodnik, brandishing a gun in his face. “When the lion’s hungry, he eats!”
That king-of-the-jungle metaphor gets trotted out a lot over the course of this twisty, turn-filled exercise in Nineties genre nostalgia. (There’s even a Miramax label slapped on it!) If that’s Ritchie’s way of telling every bright young imitator with a camera and a street-slang dictionary over the last 20 years that the original Brit-pop-gangster geezer is back, then fine, yes, OK, we get it. Every stop is pulled out: flash-forwards, literal rewinds, pop culture trivia, film-stock switch-ups, narrative loop-the-loops, lots of misdirection, and ironic voiceovers. There’s a plenty of talk about aspect ratios and a preference for celluloid and Francis Coppola’s back catalog, suggesting the real audience for this is a film student with a B+ grade average. Characters have names like Dry Eye, Big Dave, Bunny, the Coach, Eggs Benny. A Justin Bieber type gets slapped around. Fight porn ends up becoming a major plot point. So, too, does a taped indiscretion with a farm animal.
When all else fails, which is roughly 75 percent of the time, The Gentlemen relies on star power, violence, and the pleasure of watching dapper men in well-tailored fits do very bad things. Think of this as a posh GQ spread with bullets, and it feels so much more palatable. (Except for the questionable racial digs in the name of laughs and the lisping villains. Those still feel noxious.) McConaughey does what he can to lift things up and add a little bit of his leading-man rogue charm here, a little bit of his left-field weirdness there. Ditto Farrell, who makes a meal out of his supporting part. Hunnam is asked to look scruffily handsome, shoot a machine gun into the air, and act as a worthy foil to Grant’s salacious fourth-estate scumbag, and he nails two out of three. Grant, to his credit, is having a Paddington 2 level of fun throughout, even if you aren’t.
It all feels like a pale imitation of past glories, as if you’re watching someone compete against his younger self and repeatedly stumble into second place. No one is asking him to duplicate his Lock, Stock supernova success. No one is really asking for any of this at all. And while it’s understandable if the writer-director wants to get back to basics — to prove that the shock of the new may be gone, but the chops and cheekiness remain — there’s the sense that maybe moving on was the smarter move all along. Sometimes, the king of jungle wants to roar to remind the other animals that he’s still around. And sometimes, he just sounds like a lion in winter who simply wants to hear himself yowl for his own sake.