It has now been more than a decade since Matthew McConaughey emerged from his long slog through the wastelands of terrible action movies and worse romantic comedies. The ferocity with which McConaughey reasserted himself as one of the preeminent actors of his generation was shocking and unexpected, eventually culminating in his Academy Award for Best Actor win for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. But whereas some actors stick to highminded films of ever-increasing glossiness after achieving Oscar gold, McConaughey has consistently zigged. Even after reclaiming his reputation as the stone Paul Newman of the 21st century, he has taken as many oddball projects like The Beach Bum as prestige films like Interstellar. One of those oddball films is currently the number one most streamed movie on Netflix USA: Guy Ritchie’s 2019 film The Gentlemen, in which Matthew McConaughey stars as a laidback expatriate druglord in Great Britain.
In Guy Ritchie’s movie, Matthew McConaughey weaponizes his full star power as a genteel, calculating former Rhodes Scholar from a Florida trailer park who has built himself into a prominent marijuana kingpin in England through violence, fear, and his ability to charm the British upper crust. He is preparing to sell his empire to a shifty American billionaire (Jeremy Strong in Succession scumbag mode) in order to peacefully retire with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, who replaced Kate Beckinsale in pre-production).
However, on the eve of closing the deal, his grow operations are disrupted on multiple fronts, throwing Matthew McConaughey’s consigliere Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) into an increasingly tangled web of conflicts. Throughout it all, Hugh Grant’s superhumanly sleazy private investigator Fletcher essentially acts as a narrator. Eventually, it comes to be seen that the entire movie is a version of events he is pitching as a screenplay, leaving it pretty debatable how much these characters are really as bizarre as they seem. Ritchie has always had an undersung knack for plot structure, and he uses it expertly here, with scenes either being taken back and re-told by Hugh Grant or admitted that he made them up.
Plot-wise, The Gentlemen owes an enormous debt to the 1980 classic British crime drama The Long Good Friday, in which London crimelord Bob Hoskins increasingly frantically investigates who is attacking him as he attempts to sell his operation to the American Mafia. Like Hoskins, Matthew McConaughey prefers to have his underlings handle his business directly and only breaks into personal violence near the end of the film. But unlike The Long Good Friday’s washed-out, bleakly gray world, The Gentlemen is a world full of colorful characters, wildly stylized slang, and on-the-nose needle drops.
None of that should be surprising to anyone who has ever seen a Guy Ritchie film. Although The Gentlemen was his first team-up with Matthew McConaughey, it is very much of a piece with his early films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Like those movies, he populates the world with oddball characters like the MMA trainer played by Colin Ferrell and his cadre of YouTubing fighters, all clad in plaid tracksuits, or the profane tabloid publisher with a grudge played by Eddie Marsan, or Henry Golding’s suave, urbane, and ruthless up-and-coming gangster Dry-Eye. Also like those movies, The Gentlemen is pretty packed with questionable racial language and homophobia; while it can be argued this is a function of the underworld characters being portrayed, it can get pretty over the top.
The Gentlemen came at an interesting time for both star Matthew McConaughey and writer/director Guy Ritchie. For McConaughey, 2019 was the year of the bewildering, much-panned science fiction film Serenity, his stoner comedy The Beach Bum, and this hyper-stylized crime drama. In 2019, Ritchie directed both this highly profane movie that culminates with some very, very gross blackmail involving a pig and the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin with Will Smith. It must have been a very strange year for both of them. The Gentlemen received mostly decent reviews; it was praised as being a return to form for his crime thrillers, while also criticized for the aforementioned frequent racist and homophobic language. It cleared over $115 million at the box office off of a $22 million budget, so clearly audiences felt decent about it at the time. And given its current ranking on the Netflix most watched-list, it seems like audiences are still feeling pretty good about seeing Matthew McConaughey as a ruthless yet polite crimelord.