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6 TAKEAWAYS FROM GUY RITCHIE’S “THE GENTLEMAN”

I HAD AVOIDED SEEING A GUY RITCHIE FILM UNTIL NOW. IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM being “Mr. Madonna” for a number of years. One Quentin Tarantino was enough, thank you. I didn’t think I needed a British or English Tarantino, thank you very much. The decision was lazy and irrational, but I was willing to live with it. I have been familar with the titles of Mr. Ritchie’s oeuvure, skimmed the reviews, but was never compelled to make that plunge. Nothing piqued my interest.

Curious because I love gangster/crime films from any country, including the United Kingdom. They vary from country to country because no two are exactly alike, and every country has been molded over centuries by different, enormous variables. Great Britain and France share extremely restrictive firearms laws–hand guns deaths in those countries are extremely rare. Yet the classic French crime drama versus the classic British endeavor illuminate an asymmetry between their respective mores, histories and even national identities. For example boxing is seldom portrayed in French crime pictures, yet has been a fixture in British films. This can not be coincidental. Boxing has to mean something different in Great Britain than in France, otherwise it would not be a consistent cinematic trope.

I’m often late to any trend, it’s just my deplorable nature. But better late than never. After all you can always catch up. And that is what I think I must do with Mr. Ritchie’s work.

So why did I bite with the latest offering from Mr. Ritchie? Who knows, but I did. The plunge was worthwhile.

The premise is basic, topical, fanciful:

Against all odds an enterprising American becomes a king of the “puff game”(marijuana) in England. He and his English wife estimate their fortune at $400 million. Since arriving as an impoverished Rhodes Scholar student at Oxford, where he honed his drug dealing skills supplying to the upper class, he has also curated aspirational skills of becoming accepted by them as an equal. For decades Pearson crafted a mutually beneficial scheme which enriched them both, thus facilliatating the latter.

Perhaps as a midlife crisis or a prescient concern about how the inevitability of England legalizing marijuana will affect his illicit business, Mickey had decided to sell his empire to the highest bidder. Which turns out to be to another American living abroad in Old England. But our dear Matthew is not out of a Henry James novel. He is Jewish, prissy, devious, highly intelligent. The price is right.

Then complications arrive in the form of a young Anglo-Asian mobster nicknamed “Dry Eye,” whose family is of a Hong Kong crime syndicate. He is the man on the ground for a Hong Kong mobster called Lord George, who specializes in heroin sales. Dry Eye is a familiar crime figure type, the young lion feral enough to take down anyone who stands in his way–including his own family. He’s the type of man who does not take no for an answer. Deciding he wants Pearson’s business for himself, he sets out to make him an offer he can’t refuse….

Here are 6 takeaways from viewing my first Guy Ritchie film(not in any significant order):

1. EVERYTHING IS TARANTINO-ESQUE

It just is. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction so seared the cinematic landscape with his cinematic grammar and tropes(a story with a beginning, middle and end–just not necessarily in that order; criminals gabbing in between their dirty deeds on all types of topics; underworld characters from the working class; raw language stripped from the politically correct pretensions of their “superiors” and so forth–that in their aftermath anyone or anything which resembles him and his work fairly or unfairly carries that tag.

While easy and lazy to tag Ritchie as a “British” Tarantino, the comparison is not entirely daft. He too has a great ear for dialogue and working class sympathies. You pick up on his love for the genre films he works in, the giddiness in exploring the same terrain as the films which were formative to his becoming a director while adding his own idiosyncratic touches. There’s a refreshing embrace of his bad boy proclivities which is sure to offend a segment of the media and maybe even some in the audience, but so be it. Ritchie knows who he is and doesn’t flinch, which is not reactionary as it may sound to some but deeply progressive or non-conformist, even punk in measures.

2.”EVERYONE IS A CUNT”–NO EXCEPTIONS

Tarantino unnerves so many commentators of his films because he refuses to play by the (white liberal) proscribed rules of niceties, especially racial/ethnic ones, in his art. He was the first white filmmaker to adopt a more hip hop ethos into his film making and for that take on language to infilitrate his script writing. To his detractors, white as well as black, his emergence as a leading film maker and influencer is deeply troubling. They would argue his rise is about white male privilege and cultural appropriation. They loathe his frequent use of the racial eptitepth “nigger,” and his defense of the word as white man and screenwriter. Loathe that he doesn’t spare his black characters from violence and humiliation, some of which is clearly racially-motivated. Speculate that he often hires black actors(chielfy Samuel L. Jackson) to “shield” him from critical attacks that he and/or his work is actually racist. And they loathe him as a white artist, picking at the American scab of racism when, to them, that should only be created by more deserving black artists.

The reaction against Ritchie is not as severe–maybe because Ritchie has not been as commercially successful and influential as Tarantino–but does exist. Ritchie is slammed for his “laddish” work, of revealing in his depiction of nearly all-male societies and of targeting gays, Blacks and immigrants for mockery in his films. Suffice it to say I deem all these accusations as polemical harping from people obsessed with a truly Communistic notion that all art(and entertainment) must truly reflect a radically leftist point of view.

Ritchie is a Don Rickles of filmmaking. There are no sacred cows in his space. His characters skewer everyone in sight–but in a reflexive manner which feels like “real life,” especially among working class folks who are not going to have their speech dictated by people who aren’t mingling with them–the true poor and working classes of any race— in the first place…

This is exemplified by his frequent usage of the word “cunt.” Same word, two continents. In American “cunt” is a (supposedly) highly offensive word demeaning women and their vaginas. But in England, especially among the “lower” classes, cunt is a word shorn of its original usage. It can retain its original sexist punch when a man is dismissing a woman as such, yet men of all classes, races and backgrounds call one another a cunt the way black rappers toss around the word “nigga,” it’s catchall slang to describe all types of relationships.

What “fuck” is to a Martin Scorsese gangster movie, “cunt” is to The Gentlemen, used with such frequency the word almost becomes devoid of any meaning. It’s reflexive and impersonal–until it’s not. Which only mirrors the “real world” some are so eager to avoid by legislating it out of being.

The Gentlemen abounds with stereotypes and slurs, jabs at Blacks, Jews and gays and Asians. I can’t think of the last film set in contemporary times where the characters refer to anyone as a
“Chinaman.” Yet the dialogue here echoes the tribal mutterings of “the real world,” not someone’s determination to be “offensive.” Believe me, when people retreat into their own spaces, when they are among their own tribe or overlapping tribes, secure in their own milieus, how quickly do those tongues become tart and scrape away the false narratives imposed upon them by hypocritical society. Differences are noted and commented upon, not celebrated. Thus a character is referred to as “the Jew” and not the more sanitized “Jewish” usage. Yet, only when there is actual conflict between the parties does it assume a more malicious weight.

If there are no “sacred cows” then everyone and anyone can be a “cunt” and that is that.

3. CHARLIE HUNNAM IS A STAR

The British actor is best known at least in America for becoming the break-out star of the American biker TV series, Sons of Anarchy. While I was aware of the latter and would read his name bandied about I never watched it, so I had no preconceived notions upon seeing him in the film. In other words I had no fucking idea who he was.

As with Brad Pitt and the late Heath Ledger, his blondness, great looks and manliness are initially an impediment to recoginising their worth as actors. Hunnam is dazzingly handsome and virile, like a throwback to the era of Steve McQueen. (Or dare I evoke Kevin Costner!) He’s as distracting as some actresses. The fault is ours. Early MIchelle Pfeiffer or Scarlett Johannsson suffered from this as well, the wattage of their attractiveness so blinding that the developing nuances of their craft went unobserved.

One of the charms of The Gentlemen with both HUNNAM and McConaughey, with their characters, is watching  both internally as well as externally snap and recoil like human rubber bands, exemplifying their fingerprints along the class struggle continuum. Ray’s type is a familiar one in crime films, the right hand man/under boss. It’s always the same arc: in youth he gains notice for both his brawn and brains, indeed the two are intricately linked. He rises up and up the criminal command chain until he is second in command, where the direct application of violence is kept abay, doled out to his henchmen. Yet the dual nature of this man can unexpectedly return if provoked by outside forces. Once he was a soldier, a “street fighting man,” dressed exactly the lowest rung of the organization, maybe indistinguishable from other young criminals. Since then his standard of living has rose exponentially and he probably considers himself more of a businessman than a thug, note his glasses, his carefully maintained ponytail, his “improved” dress. Maybe he wants to keep the old forces at bay, a denial of his past.

But he can be suckered into unleashing his reptilian nature when provoked, the violence sudden and visceral. It’s second nature to him, no matter how dormant it has been over the years. That’s what HUNNAM is very good at displaying. He records the character’s inner turmoil in an electrifying way visible to us. We can feel his thoughts. We can anticipate his actions–and yet we are still shocked by them. We gather how he views himself and of what he tries to project to others inside the criminal bubble, of how he strains to make violent retribution the very last resort. But, to paraphrase Morrissey, the world just won’t listen! It’s a great performance in a film studded with them.

4. HUGH GRANT IS BACK(OR DID HE EVER GO AWAY?) DITTO COLIN FARRELL

Both are initially unrecognizable. The former as a gay, simpering blackmailer called Fletcher, a well-heeled and connected high ranking member of the notorious English muckraking press. He’s a real cunt: scheming, brilliant, sniveling, soused. His profession has always been about ruining peoples’ lives, so why would a drug dealer be any different from exposing the closeted gay life of a Lord?

The latter as the owner of a boxing club and the white mentor to mostly black poor/working class kids who call him “coach” and view him as a middle-aged father figure.  Visually Farrell is more immediately identifiable. And while he is dutifully been through makeup and wardrobe to have his once matinee idol status a given, it may be a shock to see him if he hasn’t been on your radar screen in many a film since his absolute youth.

It’s very unlikely that Hugh Grant will be remembered next year for any acting considerations, which will be a travesty. He’s a revelation, a reminder of how great he can be, of why he was so celebrated when his career began in earnest by the 1990s. He was labelled the “next” Cary Grant, and his roles in romantic comedies and dramas appeared to be tailored to deduce such an assumption. No one seemed more agreeable to represent the anomie of the English WASP.

Yet Grant’s career has fallen off. His roles had stopped being memorable. And his own life had more cinematic juice than his celluloid choices. Grant became a tabloid sensation on both sides of the Atlantic but particularly on his home soil. As the British tabloids became more intrusive and demeaning, he waged war on them. After an invasive industry scandal which nearly damaged the whole of them, Grant famously sued his tabloid harrassers for defamation and other high crimes and won. All of this appeared to take more precedence than his acting in memorable roles.

It isn’t lost on knowledgeable parties that Grant portrays a speciman from the unscrupulous dregs of journalism–which he does with a memorable resonance. The piping posh tones and affected stammer of his youthful campaigns are absent here. Fletcher looks, sounds and moves like a human weasel. Disshelved to mute his handsomeness, Grant slithers about, not devoid of charm. Actors continually discuss how they enjoy portraying villains, of how such roles allow them to dramatize the full spectrum of humanity. Grant’s Fletcher remains odious, but he’s also from the film nor tradition where the villains are always fascinating .

Farrell’s descent hasn’t been as dramatic, but a noticeable ebb and flow has occurred over the decades. Some scandal, some questionable roles, embrace of family life, the usual litanies. His return to form is also appreciated.  Like Grant, he’s deceptively funny. And touching.  What could be a cliche of a role is treated here with enough warmth, complexity, humor and insight to resist limits.

5.”THE NEW PAUL NEWMAN”

No contemporary American actor more resembles qualities Paul Newman possessed than Matthew McConaughey, not only of being handsome but charming, deceptively laid back, American in his boyishness. McConaughey could also be compared to Burt Reynolds, another Southern Good Old Boy Charmer–and trickster. Reynolds coasted far more on his stardom than Newman ever did, but he was capable of shedding it, too(cue up the film Deliverance).

McConaughey, like Newman an Oscar winner, has become adept at duality and is transferrable to his role as a social-climbing drug dealer. As with the actor portraying him, to dismiss  Mickey Pearson as an American yokel is a terrible mistake. At first McConaughey seems miscast. The character’s adoption of English gentility, of a mannered foppishness reeks of a double inauthenticity, that the role is beyond his grasp–and Ritchie’s direction. But all is quickly steadied and that’s when the enjoyment starts.

Like Ray, Mickey too is a man of manners and meditation–to keep his occupational demons at bay. McConaughey’s performance mirrors Hunnam’s. The excitement is observing their characters undergoing transformations, which should be anticipated, yet radiate visceral reactions. The moments where The Gentlemen reminds you–and Mickey–that he’s still a gangster are red meat for gangster movie fans.

6.”LADY MACBETH,” THY NEW NAME IS “ROSALIND PEARSON”

In this hyper age of #MeToo-ism, of identity politics and feminism as secular religions, where movie critics of certain stripes actually count the number of lines female leads have in heavily-male dramas, what are the pious, corrective forces of good to make of Rosalind Pearson? Ritchie may have created her as a tweak at that crowd. You want a strong female lead in my male gangster pic? A’ight: how about the English Cockney wife of an American drug dealing kingpin? Who’s beautiful and runs her own garage where all the mechanics are multi-racial and female? How about she’s dubious about her husband abandoning the drug business? That enough for you, cunts? And why don’t we cast Michelle Dockery, by the way? What a laugh? All the Downton Abbey freaks will be up in arms!

Whatever his motives Dockery surpasses them as the “Cockney Cleopatra.” Not quite the gangster moll on film in previous decades, she’s decidedly modern. In a movie dominated by men(boys, really) she’s incandescent and irreplaceable. She’s a scene stealer.

Which is maybe because she has to be. For all the webpages devoted to the seven words Anna Paquin’s character speaks in The Irishman, Dockrey isn’t onscreen for any great length of time, either. Furthermore, Paquin’s character doesn’t suffer a story indignity which befalls Dockrey’s in the third act of The Gentlemen, a sequence which almost derails any audience goodwill. A sequence which does not seem organic to the story, only a surprisingly lazy and plot contrivance more common to grindhouse movies. Without giving away the details, the scene could be interpreted in a few ways, but none reflecting very well upon Ritchie. It’s a scuzzy digression before a snappy finale, and maybe a reminder that for all the squawbling about Tarantino it’s readily agreed upon that he has transcended his own “pulp fictions” and maybe Ritchie–despite how fun, enjoyable and defiant The Gentlemen really is– ultimately has not.

 

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