The Gentlemen cockney movie
Around the turn of the millennium, Guy Ritchie was on top of the game.
Slaven Vlasic / Stringer / Getty Images
By Charles Bramesco / January 23, 2020 8:09 am

Due to a boyhood dyslexia diagnosis, a young Guy Ritchie spent a handful of his early years at Stanbridge Earls School, an elite academy catering to students with special needs. Their notable alumni include a Duke and a Lord, but not Guy Ritchie; he never graduated, getting the boot at age 15 and returning to a family rife with barons and baronesses matrilineally stretching all the way back to King Edward I. In his book on Ritchie’s former spouse Madonna, the writer Andrew Morton cites a claim from Ritchie that his expulsion was on the grounds of drug use. Morton’s book then offers the conflicting report from Ritchie’s father that his son was dismissed for “cutting class and entertaining a girl in his room.”

The privilege of his birthright left Ritchie with fantasies of caddishness that he first played out in his personal life, and then in his movies. He made his bones on so-called “mockney” action pictures Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, rollicking stories of scuzzy lowlifes with colorful nicknames and salty vocabularies. Ritchie’s latest film The Gentlemen returns him to this distinct tradition, laying out a characteristically convoluted conflict between American marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and his Chinese rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding). But much has changed in the two decades since Ritchie’s style enjoyed its heyday, and the years have not exactly been kind. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Ritchie was on top of the game. These were boom times for indie film, and he’d carved himself out a nice niche as the singular talent behind a super-charged new breed of gangster films. The elements of his style were clear from the outset: labyrinthine plotting dependent on coincidence and miscommunication, larger-than-life personalities prone to comically violent outbursts, a fascination with the seedier alleys of British culture. To summarize 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would spill too much e-ink, so suffice it to say that its haywire path of mayhem wends around a half-million-pound gambling debt and a pair of priceless antique shotguns. Two years later, Snatch refined the Ritchie aesthetic and raised it to the nth degree. The thicket of double-crossings, reversals of fortune and unexpected twists of fate used a golfball-sized diamond to connect an Irish Traveller boxer (Brad Pitt), an irate American jeweler (Dennis Farina), a hard-nosed hustler (Jason Statham) and about a dozen other tough guys. 

These films succeeded in that they inspired some truly dreadful imitators and generated handsome box-office profits from their humble budgets, but the good times could not last. Snatch netted a stunning $83.6 million from its $10 million allotment for production, the sort of blockbuster windfall that imbues a hotshot director with the intoxicated confidence required to make 2002’s disastrous Swept Away. As a remake of a daring class-conflict sex comedy from ‘70s Italy and as a vanity project for Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, it bellyflopped so hard that when Ritchie returned to the crime genre in 2005 with Revolver, the poster had to reassure audiences that the director was “BACK TO HIS BEST.” The magic was gone, though, with Ritchie’s hopeful return to form and its follow-up Rocknrolla meeting with a tepid reception from audiences and critics alike.

Matthew McConaughey plays a marijuana kingpin in The Gentlemen.

As of late, Ritchie’s had no choice but to channel his predilections for smart-aleck voiceover, kinetic chase scenes, and lads-being-lads rowdiness through the filters of intellectual property. Whether working with classic literature, nostalgia-bait TV, medieval legend or Disney’s partially-digested leavings from the ‘90s, he’s always found his way back to familiar territory. He imagined Arthur and Aladdin as wily yet lovable crooks, family-friendly distant relatives to the rogues gallery of his first two films. Only now, with The Gentlemen, has Ritchie cut the cross-promotion and gotten back to basics.

The film reintroduces a Ritchie making movies his way and on his terms again, with all the stew-thick Cockney accents and needlessly complicated frame narratives his loyalists have been missing. It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which the chips had fallen differently, and The Gentlemen really was the return to form that it so clearly wants to be. But everything from the writing to the camerawork conveys the impression of having gotten long-in-the-tooth, and more fogeyish still, of resenting and denying that passage of time. The fleet pacing and comically outsized immaturity may obscure this much, but Ritchie’s doing the grumpy-old-man movie that all male directors eventually must.

He could find a simpatico spirit in main character Mickey Pearson, a king preparing to step back from the throne. After cultivating a vast cannabis empire and living through what we’re assured are several lifetimes of wild exploits, he and his no-nonsense wife (Michelle Dockery) want to cash in and retire. They’ve arranged a deal with a well-to-do American drug baron named Berger (Jeremy Strong), but the negotiations are scuttled when the Chinese heroin pusher Dry Eye intervenes with an attempted hostile takeover. A gang war’s a-brewing, and Ritchie divides it along generational lines.

The voiceover narration from sleazy reporter Fletcher (Hugh Grant) explicitly pegs Dry Eye as a millennial in his first appearance, his relative greenness a marked contrast with Mickey’s worldly ways. Dry Eye lets his impulsive brash streak get the better of him, [spoilers ahead] going so far as to kill the head of his own crime family in a burst of petulant, entitled rage. He believes he’s entitled to the seat of power, and he doesn’t want to wait to take it. His only contemporaries in the film don’t represent their generation any better; a crew of small-time street toughs prove themselves early and often to be reckless, short-sighted, and dim. They tape their ambush on Mickey’s growhouse, edit the whole thing together with a theme rap, and post it to YouTube. (Tellingly, their video is scored to the grime music of today, as opposed to the ‘90s cuts from The Pharcyde and the Wu-Tang Clan strung through the rest of the film.) It’s a stupid move, obviously, but even worse in the film’s estimation, it’s shameless glory-seeking. It’s poor form.

The headstrong, hot-tempered young gun has always been a stock character of the gangster demimonde, but the disparaging way in which Ritchie applies it betrays his subtextual agenda. The newbies have no sense of propriety or chivalry — they’re not gentlemen. Mickey and his aging peer group in Gen X (that includes Charlie Hunnam as his right-hand man, and Colin Farrell as the mentor to the crew of live-streaming upstarts) share a disgust for the notion that they could ever be replaced by the insouciant kids coming up from behind. In the film’s pivotal scene, Dry Eye warns Mickey that the law of the jungle dictates that the old replace the new, to which he retorts that it’s actually that the strong eliminate the weak. He needs to believe that increased age doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in potency, or else his rivals will sense his vulnerability. This idea of tenuous honor among thieves stands out as a major constant in Ritchie’s filmography, and it’s employed here in service of some glaring meta-commentary.

At 51, Ritchie’s a bit young to be whinging that the whippersnappers need to respect their elders. As a filmmaker, however, it makes sense that he’d be defensive when it comes to the ways of the past. It wasn’t so long that he was at the top of the industry food chain, and the scathing reviews that now paint him as a studio hack must sting. Just as Mickey beats his chest with repeated declarations that he’s still a force to be reckoned with, this film serves as Ritchie’s boldfaced statement that he hasn’t lost any of his rip-snorting mojo. But nothing makes a person look older than sweaty attempts to demonstrate how young they are, and the standard techniques of the Mockney flick just don’t hit like they used to. The MTV-style editing feels passé, its humor smug and fratty. I suspect that it’s not for nothing that the threat to Cockney supremacy comes from China, the dominant influence on mainstream action filmmaking over the past decade.

The unsavory racial politics of the film are the dead giveaway that Ritchie may be out of joint with the times. Plenty of words have already been written about Fletcher’s cheeky reference to Dry Eye as having a “ricense to kill,” and the script seems to perceive some charming tang of nostalgia in the repeated use of the term “chinaman” that simply is not there. In one particularly hard-to-watch scene, Farrell’s character defuses a conflict by explaining that the epithet “black cunt” is, when broken down into its component parts, not racist. It all smacks of someone pushing back against the currents of change in a world leaving him, or at least the style he single handedly popularized, behind. The big metaphor about survival of the fittest that he’s so fond of? It doesn’t really privilege the young, or the old, or the strong, or the weak. The only ones that survive are the one that evolve.