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The Gentlemen Review: New Players, Same Game, No Risks

  • The cast is great
  • It's very stylish
  • Good balance of comedy and crime drama
  • The story starts to drag
  • The lead characters never fully develop
  • It feels stretched out over too many episodes

It was only a matter of time before one of Guy Ritchie's crime sagas was expanded into the streaming world, and not just because the digital landscape is a place of constant reinvention and rebooting. At his best, Ritchie can weave a vast, seemingly endless tapestry in his films about the British underworld, delivering memorable characters and schemes that satisfy on their own while always hinting at a bigger game full of even more eccentric players. Taking that tapestry and putting it in a frame that extends beyond the runtime of a single feature film feels like a no-brainer.

Now, that no-brainer has been realized with "The Gentlemen," a Netflix original series created, directed, and co-written by Ritchie, spinning out of the events of his 2019 crime film of the same name. Like that film, which starred Matthew McConaughey as an American in the U.K. leveraging his criminal empire to his own ends, the new series is an ensemble piece with a sprawling cast of characters and a constantly shifting set of allegiances and plans poised to go awry, this time with the benefit of unfolding across eight hours instead of just two.

Or at least, it's supposed to be a benefit. For all its slickness and charm, "The Gentlemen" never quite justifies its existence as an expanded vision of Ritchie's world. It's a story that feels stretched instead of grown, scraped out across too many hours to give audiences an experience that is, at best, watchable, and at worst, frustrating.

A strange inheritance

While it is a spinoff set in the same world as Guy Ritchie's 2019 film, you don't need to worry all that much about remembering every last detail of that version of the story, because the connective tissue is (at first, at least) really only concerned with one major element. The movie introduced the idea that British weed empires are grown and maintained not out in the open, but in massive secret underground labs hidden beneath the land holdings of the British aristocracy, and showed us that operation from the point-of-view of the drug dealers.

The series, by contrast, shows us the ins and outs of the arrangement as it's illustrated to one particular aristocrat, specifically Edward (Theo James), a soldier who returns home to visit his dying father's bedside and, upon his father's death, unexpectedly becomes a Duke. Suddenly, Edward has a massive estate to manage, and all of the headaches that come along with it — including the massive criminal debts racked up by his reckless brother Freddy (Daniel Ings).

Searching for a way out of his brother's mess, Edward discovers two things in rapid succession: A strange cash horde in his father's manor house, and a connection to the enigmatic Susie Glass (Kaya Scodelario), who reveals that, for years, Edward's father allowed a massive cannabis lab to exist beneath his property in exchange for a sizable financial windfall. Determined to keep things legitimate for his family's future, Edward promises himself that he will eventually get rid of the lab and his family's connections to organized crime. First, though, he has to sort out Freddy's mess, and that's easier said than done.

In typical Guy Ritchie fashion, "The Gentlemen" launches this setup quickly and never looks back, freewheeling through dilemma after dilemma as Edward, Freddy, and Susie deal with everyone from a criminal fishmonger (Peter Serafinowicz) to a wealthy investor (Giancarlo Esposito) who's weirdly intent on buying the family manor house. It's clear very early on that Ritchie has lost none of his relish for this kind of plotting, throwing all kinds of wrenches into the plans of the two brothers, seeding out potential problems for future episodes, and constantly expanding the roster of characters to fit the bigger sandbox of the streaming series format. There's a lot of ambition here. Unfortunately, that ambition doesn't always translate to great storytelling.

Rough characters, rough story

"The Gentlemen" starts with a pleasant twist on a classic Guy Ritchie formula: Instead of taking a criminal and putting him through the wringer, let's take a non-criminal, introduce him to a bunch of criminals, and see if he sinks or swims. It's a nice change-up, but it doesn't quite work because, no matter how much time we spend with Edward, we can't ever quite figure out what he wants. Theo James is reliably charming, watchable, and capable in the leading role, but the series never gives him much time to breathe; to really give us any insight into who he is or what drives him, something that's complicated by his apparent frustration with his entire family as the show begins. He's a tricky character to pin down, and while that might work for two hours, as the show wears on we can't help but wish for something more. And even beyond Edward, as "The Gentlemen" keeps progressing its narrative, it's clear that the problem of its lead character is a problem with the whole series. It's all slick and stylish and packed with all the usual Ritchie touches, but the more style points the show racks up, the more you wish for some substance.

Still, there are things to like here: particularly Kaya Scodelario, who simmers and beguiles in a way that makes the unknowable quality of her character an asset rather than a liability. She fits right into this world, and she makes scenes work even when the show starts to fall back on the worst instincts of Ritchie storytelling — namely the need to spell certain criminal plots out for the lowest common denominator in the audience. Then there's the supporting cast who gets to make a meal out of their characters, including Peter Serafinowicz shouting at the top of his lungs, Vinnie Jones playing strong and silent, and Dar Salim as ... well, let's just call him a cleaner and leave the rest for the show.

The supporting cast, and Ritchie's ever-present style, are enough to make "The Gentlemen" a watchable affair, even if you might start losing interest here and there and wondering by the finale if it was worth the whole eight-hour journey. In the end, the whole thing plays like an experiment in scaling up Ritchie's universe, and while it never quite succeeds, it also never entirely fails.

"The Gentlemen" premieres March 7 on Netflix.