Guns, gangs and imperialism

The Gentlemen is light entertainment that will be enjoyed most by Brits and Americans who fear the waning of their countries’ dominance on a world stage. Kate Bradley reviews.

Film still from The Gentlemen
Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam in The Gentlemen (2020).

The Gentlemen (dir. Guy Ritchie; USA 2020; 1h 53min)

***

The other night I went to see Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. I’d recently watched last year’s biopic The Irishman (2019) – which, despite its anti-trade union bias, was in places a very thoughtful film about the glamorisation of the U.S. mafia. The Gentleman has no such interesting commentary: it’s just guns, gags and imperialism.

The film couldn’t have come at a better time for the U.S. government. The conjunction of the film’s release with news of the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, the general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, throws up some interesting questions about mainstream culture’s role as propaganda. It is unlikely that this film was released especially to justify a potential war against Iran, but the film is clearly a fantasy about ongoing Anglo-American global dominance. The Gentlemen positions itself as edgy, using crime and grime music to make viewers feel transgressive – but don’t be fooled; there’s no actual critical thinking here. It’s just a pastiche of racial stereotyping and scaremongering about foreigners couched in light comedy.

Hugh Grant plays a main role, and I hope he gets some criticism for taking the role. As a snivelling private investigator trying to play both sides of a gang war, his character has a script that is deliberately and gratuitously racist and sleazy, full of racial slurs, particularly against Chinese and Jewish people. These slurs are not used for the purposes of ‘realism’, but almost for the joy of it: to give a politically incorrect audience a thrill, the childish pleasure of transgression.

Though the self-aware script is bad enough, it’s the plot which fully reveals The Gentlemen as an Anglo-American imperialist fantasy. In Ritchie’s London gangland – itself a dreamland of extreme wealth and untouchability – all the battles are shown as taking place along racial lines. Our hero, Mickey Pearson, is an American who has ingratiated himself with the British aristocracy. Between Pearson’s canny business sense and the aristocrats’ bumbling willingness to facilitate his criminal empire by letting him grow marijuana on their estates, they do extremely well for themselves. That is until his empire his threatened by various outside forces, most of whom are led by gangsters that come from other major imperial powers, such as China or Russia, although there is also a Jewish American who serves as Pearson’s false friend. (No antisemitic tropes were spared in the making of this film.)

The assortment of foreigners who threaten Pearson’s business model appear to have the upper hand throughout the film, but unsurprisingly, the plot turns in our protagonists’ favour pretty decisively towards the end. The Chinese gangsters meet viscerally gruesome endings, amid bad jokes about their names. The Jewish gangster follows almost the exact same character arc as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a notoriously antisemitic play. The script even quotes The Merchant of Venice in places, so the comparison appears entirely intentional. In the closing scenes, the Jewish gangster is put in his place by the American and forced to pay a tithe or die – and we’re supposed to glory in his defeat.

Probably the hardest hitting scene in the film is one in which Pearson chastises a Chinese gangster-king for ‘ruining lives’ due to his choice to sell opiates. (There is an apparently unintentional historical irony here.) As the conversation unfolds, the scene cuts to the heroin-related death of British aristocrat’s daughter, her body emaciated and her parents distraught. As a ‘gentleman’ gangster, Pearson supposedly uses violence more sparingly and carefully than his opponents – an idea repeated several times in the film.

So the Anglo-American myth goes: other people are the ones who cause harm when they dominate; by contrast, we are firm but sensible; we stand for capitalism, for money-making, but also for human dignity. The sheer quantity of murder and violence inflicted by the Brits and Americans in the film should be enough of a rejoinder, but like in a James Bond film, the contradiction is allowed to stand. We are left to accept the paradox of the ethical tyrant – as we were in real life with the ‘war on terror’, or the invasion of Iraq in the name of human rights. Following the same pattern, I suspect we will see a lot more tub-thumping about the dangerousness of the Iranian regime over the coming weeks, and quite a few commentaries on the role of Britain and America, hand-in-glove, as the world’s protectors. The Gentlemen is one of those commentaries.

If mass culture does anything political effectively, it’s to curate the mainstream common sense. If we are to do anything political with it, we have to find ways of dismantling the worst elements of that common sense and exposing the violence films like this justify.

 

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