Guy Ritchie returns to the London underworld with The Gentlemen, a genial, meta crime comedy

Once upon a time, in my review of 2008's RocknRolla, I said that "Guy Ritchie would surprise us if he surprised us." I was alluding to his then-seeming dedication to telling blackly comedic stories about modern-day London criminals. Clearly, though, this was not a steadfast dedication, given his subsequent attempts to turn a towering figure of myth into a Londinium street rat in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and his inexplicable (though perhaps blessed) lack of an attempt to deal with Aladdin as the street rat he has always been in the director's live-action remake of the cartoon musical.

All of which is to say: Ritchie is back on the beat of modern-day London criminals with his latest, The Gentlemen. And not only is this a downright relief — surprises are sometimes overrated — but as Ritchie ups his game with the subgenre here, the result is a hilariously sublime example of the crime comedy as a mirror on the legit world, full of sufficiently advanced crime and criminals barely indistinguishable from legitimate business and entrepreneurs, and oozing with crackling cynicism about culture and politics at large.

Oh, and the movies themselves come in for a snarky smackdown. Laugh until you cry, film nerds!

Behold the ultimate unreliable narrator: oily, disgusting London journalist Fletcher, as gloriously embodied by Hugh Grant. The Gentlemen is all about him trying to extort a boatload of cash from drug dealer and American abroad Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), via his lieutenant and British lackey, Ray (Charlie Hunnam). It seems that a London tabloid has hired Fletcher to dig up dirt on Mickey, which Fletcher has accomplished — and then some! — but Fletcher is willing to hand it all over to Mickey and company in exchange for a very reasonable eight-figure honorarium.

And so The Gentlemen is nothing more and nothing less than Fletcher relating to Ray all the dirt he has on Mickey's business, in feloniously delightful narrative form. But that means we never know which bits of it we should accept as accurate and which bits are arrant nonsense whipped up to sell newspapers and generate online clicks (or, indeed, to beef up a movie). For Fletcher also has, at the ready, a screenplay about Mickey's extralegal exploits, also available for sale to the highest bidder.

Is anything Fletcher relates — to Ray or to us — actually "true"? Or is it just fodder for the morons listening and watching... and paying? Are we not entertained?

Oh, but it all gets so much better. We probably can take at face value the information that Mickey's illicit drug business is entirely in marijuana, and that he is fielding buyout offers that take into consideration the fact that it's all surely going to go legal soon. The fine line between criminal and legit has never been quite this fine since the American prohibition of alcohol, and everyone here knows it. Did I mention there are Russians interested in Mickey's enterprise?

And there is the real meta of The Gentlemen: Not the self-referential movie stuff but the bald, unapologetic fact that all of this is a metaphor for Brexit. With a sleazy faux-respectability that, perhaps, only the likes of McConaughey could bring, Mickey takes advantage of British aristocratic delusions about the nation's place in the postcolonial world to further his business. And now Russians are honing in on it? At best, it's another American (Jeremy Strong) who will be owning this big venture on British soil. Damn, this is some cold shit from a British filmmaker... but it ain't inaccurate.

Still, never fear! There's plenty of movie-movie distraction to be had. Here is new big-screen heartthrob Henry Golding (see: Last Christmas and Crazy Rich Asians) as a nasty, dumb comic-relief villain. Behold Colin Farrell defying expectations as a tough guy who [redacted]. It's all just silly cinematic fun! Of course it is. ♦

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Thu., Oct. 21, 7-8:30 p.m.
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Maryann Johanson

Maryann Johanson