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Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen exists for two reasons.  One is to try to surprise us.  The movie is filled with so many twists, turns and double-crosses that it seems like it wants us to smack our foreheads with astonishment over and over again.  "The movie has fooled us once again!", it hopes we will say.  Of course, once you figure out the sole purpose of a film is to deceive the audience, then you start waiting for it to happen.  It's more fun if a movie plays fair, and trots out the surprises over time, instead of going out of its way to surprise us in multiple scenes.

The other reason is for writer-director Guy Ritchie to return to the tough British crime comic thriller that made him famous back in 1999 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  That film stood out among the flood of Quentin Tarantino-inspired imitators that we got during that decade thanks to its energy, and unique setting.  Ritchie has dabbled in the genre since then, but he's also tried to expand his scope with big budget franchise films (the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr), and live action remakes of Disney animated hits (last summer's Aladdin).  There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker going back to their roots.  Lots of directors do it.  But it helps if the return to the genre that made you famous gets to stand out for its own reasons, rather than feel like an uninspired throwback to something that worked before.  There's a game and talented cast on display here, but the movie never grabbed me in a way so that I cared about any of them.

The plot follows an American crime boss living in England named Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who got into the business of dealing in drugs back in college, and now runs an entire empire with a loyal wife (Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey) by his side.  He's got a vast network of underground bases to grow his product, a lot of people who are proud to serve him, and multiple other crime bosses who would love to kill him so they can take what he has, or blackmail him.  He's got people trying to buy his empire, including the shady Matthew (Jeremy Strong), while others basically want to muscle him out of what he has, like the Asian criminal Dry Eye (Henry Golding).  There's also a plot concerning Michael's right-hand man (Charlie Hunnam) being blackmailed by a sleazy reporter (Hugh Grant, having a blast), who wants a huge pay day in return for not releasing some incriminating evidence that he managed to snap photos of.  The reporter's even written everything down into a screenplay, which he hopes to sell to a studio for more money.

There are young hooligans, the Russian mob, a doped-up girl, and a tabloid editor who gets drugged and makes love with a pig.  I'll leave it up to you to figure out how all these elements fit into the colossal plot that Ritchie and his story people have thrown together.  Regardless, The Gentlemen sometimes seems too busy  Almost everybody has an ulterior motive, somebody's always plotting something, and when we think someone is dead, the movie rewinds itself, and shows us that the person isn't nearly as dead as it lead us to believe.  This movie loves to misdirect us at every turn, as well as show us how "cool" it is with its film editing that uses fast forward, pointing out certain characters with humorous captions handwritten onto the screen, characters speaking about movie trivia, and so much more that the film is constantly in danger of being overstuffed.

None of this amused or invested me in the story.  It felt like pointless flash.  Ritchie doesn't just want to pull the rug out from under us at every opportunity, but he also wants to throw in a lot of ironic humor and have the characters talk about the works of Francis Ford Coppola while they're in the middle of blackmailing and extorting money from each other.  Nobody gets to talk like a real person here.  They're too busy name-dropping, and being sly with their dialogue.  One of Michael Pearson's favorite things to talk about is the "law of the jungle", where he compares himself to a lion who must eat the competition in order to stay alive.  Again, whenever he brings this up, it sounds like a screenplay feeding him lines.  It's too clever, and too structured.  If you were in a life or death situation like him, you wouldn't be thinking about witty ways to describe your situation.

The Gentlemen mostly gets by on the star power of its cast, all of whom are selling this material  They do make it fun from time to time.  But I didn't enjoy this enough, and I ultimately just didn't care about who was blackmailing or, or trying to kill so-and-so, while backstabbing such-and-such.  I don't ask that all movies be simple.  I just ask that I give a damn about the people who are driving the complex plot forward.

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