‘The Gentlemen’ Review: Netflix Lets Guy Ritchie Go Wild With TV Adaptation of His Own Crime Thriller

The director’s first television project feels like a creative resurgence, but lacks a clear destination

Kaya Scodelario and Theo James in "The Gentlemen." (Netflix)

Fans of Guy Ritchie’s early British caper comedies were heartened when the filmmaker returned to form with 2019’s “The Gentlemen.” It had his signature twisty plotting, verbal gymnastics, endless array of criminal gangs and cold-blooded class consciousness, almost back up to the entertaining levels of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” after years of bad Sherlock Holmes, Aladdin and King Arthur remakes-for-hire.

While Ritchie’s subsequent features haven’t maintained the momentum, his new, Netflix “Gentlemen” series delivers everything we could reasonably expect, over eight generous and often ingeniously constructed episodes that allow us to savor their rich Ritchieness at a more relaxed pace than a two-hour movie. It’s the auteur’s first TV project (he didn’t have a hand in Crackle’s woeful “Snatch” series), which he created and directed the first two episodes. You can tell he reveled in indulging and sharing all of his favorite motifs in a manner to be savored.

While the overall impression is one of creative resurgence, it’s a tad disappointing that this new “Gentlemen” doesn’t really go anywhere, well, new. But as some toff might tell you, the joy is in the journey, not necessarily the destination.

The series tells a discrete story that grafts concepts from the “Gentlemen” movie onto “Godfather” themes, dusted with Tarantino influence. Theo James, fresh from finally outgrowing hot teen roles with his “White Lotus” investment bro, plays Eddie Horniman. We meet the British army captain commanding a UN peacekeeping checkpoint in some goat-herding part of the world. He’s also the Duke of Halstead’s second son, and is soon called home to his father’s deathbed. Dad’s last wish is for Eddie to keep the ancestral manor house and its vast acreage intact and in the family. To ensure this, the duke skipped over eldest boy Freddy (“Sex Education” actor Daniel Ings) and made Eddie the primary heir. A drug-addled gambler with a knack for bad investments, Freddy does not take this well; papers are tossed and scenery is chewed at the will reading, but Ings soon earns credit for bringing this flamboyant twit down off the ceiling and into an earthier screw-up mode.

Steady Eddie soon discovers more to be concerned about than his brother’s unmanageable debt to a coke-dealing clan of Liverpool religious fanatics. A stylish woman introduces herself, then shows him how the duke cleared the five million pounds a year that keeps the estate solvent. There’s an illegal marijuana plantation under the dairy farm, one of a dozen Susie Glass (Kaya Scodelario) operates for her imprisoned mob boss father Bobby (intimidating veteran Ray Winstone) on properties of otherwise impoverished lords. With Hawkwoman eye makeup and red-soled heels, Scodelario plays Susie like a devil spawn Emma Peel; super smart and capable, manipulative and ruthless, she’s impressed by Eddie’s similar, if unplumbed, qualities. He wants the Glass operation off his land, yet knows Susie can help resolve Freddy’s Liverpool situation. Susie sees through Eddie’s good boy demeanor while he refuses to. At core, he’s got killer instincts and gets off on the brutal danger she leads him deeper and deeper into.

“Careful there, Soldier. I can be nice and I can be not so nice,” Susie tells Eddie at a particularly fraught moment between them, summing up the pair’s treacherous, enticing frisson.

Giancarlo Esposito in “The Gentlemen.” (Netflix)

When people as attractive as James and Scodelario are messing with each other, there can’t help but be sexual tension. Yet their overt relationship remains, to again reference the 1960s “Avengers” TV series, on a bent Steed-and-Peel professional level. It’s a frustrating tease that could grow tiresome if not for the ingenious ways Eddie and Susie try to outfox one another, or conspire to do so to murderous competitors and alternately formidable or pathetic dupes.

Ritchie and company can cut away to scores of quirky supporting characters as well. Beside predictably unpredictable Freddy and four-dimensional chess master Bobby, there’s an impossibly erudite American meth billionaire (Giancarlo Esposito) who wants to buy Halstead Manor for its, sure, architectural significance. Susie’s high-on-his-own-supply head horticulturalist Jimmy (Michael Vu) has his own femme fatale weakness, Ruby Sears’ vinyl-clad dream girl Gabrielle. Eddie’s mom Lady Sabrina (Joely Richardson) and devoted gamekeeper Geoff (ex-footballer Vinnie Jones, who got his acting start in “Lock, Stock”), play against their posh and hardman archetypes to become the true hearts of the show. There’s an assortment of other idiot siblings, blackmailers, dissolute/deranged aristocrats and gangs of — let’s see — Albanians, Irish Travelers, Cockney disposal experts, Pakistani money launderers, underhanded boxing promoters, Belgian smugglers, machete-wielding luxury car dealers …

Despite the extended format, Ritchie rarely permits a scene to drag. Most episodes are tight little stories in themselves that also push along the overriding narrative. Beside the always amusing dialog and characters, flashes of serious psychological abuse are wed to apt but inventive visual correlatives, as in an astonishing, expertly nerve-wracking sequence involving a grotesque chicken suit. The directors have fun with editing, lens choices and widescreen compositions, minus the frantic feeling Ritchie sometimes aroused cramming formal flourishes into standalone films. Beatings and bloodlettings are as shocking as they can be without getting too gratuitous — usually.

Theo James in “The Gentlemen.” (Netflix)

The series touches on politics (Brexit’s bad for pot exports!) and strives to get at deeper themes, but only illuminates them in black comic ways. Family loyalty is a big deal to the Glasses, most of the Hornimans and their retainers, and certain other crime clans; while deception is the series’ main game, betrayal is considered quite intolerable and harshly dealt with. Class conflicts don’t bring much to that centuries-old table; self-made crime barons with better taste than old money scions aren’t exactly revolutionary, while nobility’s capacity to out-maneuver uppity proles is well documented.

“The Gentlemen” probably works best in the something-to-say department by promoting the notion of being true to yourself. Yeah, that’s an old saw too, but when that real you can get the job done, no amount of breeding is a proper substitute.

“The Gentlemen premieres Thursday, March 7, on Netflix.


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