The Gentlemen (2019) and the true escapist fantasies of Guy Ritchie
This time there’s a woman!
This is not a love letter to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but you should leave and watch that right now
I am a firm supporter of staying in your lane when you’re doing swimmingly well in that lane. This, of course, applies more to white people than other people, since more and more of them have begun to feel the need to switch to a fast lane, so to speak, only to be tailgated and for the rest of the highway to watch them be honked back into their origins.
This was recently discussed in an episode of Keep It, a podcast from Crooked Media, where the hosts went over the news that some blackface episodes of 30 Rock were being taken down. The discussion was over Tina Fey’s argument that she was just trying to make a point, putting her thoughts out there, expressing her opinion, basically picking up speed in the fast lane of the blackface discourse. And the hosts of Keep It pointed out that absolutely no one who tunes into 30 Rock, not now and not when you could actually tune in, are expecting the show to be a commentary on blackface. It did swimmingly well in its lane. In fact, I will defend Tina Fey’s work on most counts when they are in that lane.
The same can be said for Guy Ritchie.
The sheer trauma of being exposed to fifteen minutes of his Aladdin remake is the reason why I’m getting around to this movie so late. But if you remove that atrocity from perspective, I am a slut for Guy Ritchie’s films. They mix the two things that really do it for me in cinema — good comprehensible action choreography and witty dialogue. Every time he makes a film about some British people doing some British crime and getting into some British trouble, it’s a party. You chuckle, you laugh, you might admire, and you definitely appreciate the talent, the music, the comedy, and the overall Britishness.
To someone like me, an Indian girl who’s never been to Britain, it’s like watching anime. It’s anthropologic entertainment mixed with some of my favourite actors in the business. A great deal. You start a Guy Ritchie movie. You might have an idea of what might go on, but you enjoy it anyway because it lets you escape into this world where all the smart gangsters are well dressed and the stupid ones are in sweatpants. Fucking sign me up — I’ll watch one of those every month if you ask me.
So when I say I loved watching The Gentlemen, it’s not just about the quality of the film — though that has merit too. It’s the fact that like in U.N.C.L.E. and Snatch and the Downey-Law Sherlock Holmes-s (and even the mid-point of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword where they did an Arthurian version of a heist), it was exactly what I appreciate Guy Ritchie for. It was the reason why I mourn his jaunts outside of his lane. It let me sit down and escape.
Where escaping does not, in fact, mean separation of the art from the artist, etc.
Now, I don’t mean to say that more filmmakers should ‘leave politics out of their work’ or the viewers should ‘watch movies in a vacuum’ or some shit like that. There is no vacuum. Context is what makes art impactful.
Sobutand even if politics is not the point of the vacuum, watching The Gentlemen would be way less enjoyable if this wasn’t the first time I was hearing Hugh Grant talk like that, and if I hadn’t already consumed enough Succession to actually squeak loudly when Jeremy Strong first opened his mouth.
It would be less cool to take in the character of Rosalind Pearson, played by Michelle Dockery sporting a cockney accent without knowing that the cockney accent was usually a coded way of portraying scrappy working-class Englishpeople and Rosalind being a mob boss in her own rights had just a little taste of subversion that went well with the rest of the movie’s setting. See? Staying unbothered doesn’t mean staying ignorant.
But would I have enjoyed The Gentlemen more had Guy Ritchie tried to comment on the racial injustice in the action genre where the black men are either hip-hop gangsters or they are goons belonging to the bigger mob boss? Would it have worked to give Henry Golding a monologue where he decries the portrayal of Asian men as villains who attacked only with martial artistry and ninjas? I don’t think so. Some may disagree, but I think it won’t work coming from him. I think the topic deserves an expert or even someone who has something more to say than I presume Guy Ritchie would, and Guy Ritchie is an expert in dumb white lads and well-dressed mobsters. He did his part by using his imagination and giving us a cunning and successful woman with a cockney accent, a fun, crazy mob boss wannabe played by Henry Golding and some British millennials of colour doing things I would never doubt that they do IRL (i.e. vlogging crimes).
This is why Aladdin had so many glaring holes. While the larger affront to my senses may have been Will Smith’s singing, I can’t really blame him for not knowing that the clothes they put Princess Jasmine in look like they belong in a porn parody, can I? Why the fuck would he know what Princess Jasmine should wear? I mean, yes, he could have done the research, but you can’t expect him to have taste in medieval Asian women’s costumes. Just like you can’t expect Tina Fey to know what it truly feels like to watch people use blackface to infantilize racist attacks on African-Americans. But both of them tried all the same. That’s their bad.
What I am saying that sometimes you don’t need to try to change lanes by taking the example of The Gentlemen. A lot of the same things worked in this film that worked in Richie’s other films. Great ensemble casting. Good, engaging plot. Slightly caricaturized but funny characters. A satisfying end always hanging on a sequel (that, to my great despair, never happens. RIP U.N.C.L.E. 2). He even threw in a meta twist at the end, something that I loved. It was an all-round good time to be had, just me, my TV, and the fun things that Guy Ritchie’s characters say.