The Universal arthouse subsidiary Focus Features has long appeared to have one foot firmly planted in the United Kingdom and related areas. (Their biggest U.S. grosser: The Downton Abbey movie. Even their blockbuster outlier for worldwide box office has an English spin, with Scotsman Gerard Butler starring in London Has Fallen.) Their new thriller The Outfit probably isn’t intended as a commentary on that proclivity. It’s probably just meant as the sort of proper, well-wrought thriller for adults that doesn’t often make it all the way to multiplexes anymore. But this gangster yarn focusing on Leonard (Mark Rylance), Savile Row tailor who has relocated to Chicago, has a cross-cultural fizz that feels like a metaphor for a certain breed of Focus Feature: It’s about a polite, well-mannered, soft-spoken transplant from the U.K. pitted against rougher-hewn American ruffians in the mid-1950s.
Leonard has no compunction about the fact that his Chicago shop primarily serves underworld types—or at least, if he does, he keeps a savvy quiet about it. Though his careful suit-making—a craft, he emphasizes in narration, not an art—must attract other customers, the only ones we see barging in and out of his shop are gangster types who also use the storefront as a dropbox, sending and receiving messages from The Outfit, a bigger crime syndicate that has taken an interest in the local Chicago gang. Family leader Roy (Simon Russell Beale) doesn’t bother Leonard and Leonard looks the other way on whatever he may overhear in the shop. He’s more concerned with his chipper assistant Mable (Zoey Deutch), who talks a good game about her lack of interest in the criminal element, but seems to be eyeing Roy’s son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) with an interest that goes beyond simple watchfulness.
It’s Richie who turns up at the shop after-hours one night, helped along by Francis (Johnny Flynn), after a skirmish with a rival gang leaves Richie with a bullet in the gut. Leonard isn’t a doctor, but he can sew; good enough, perhaps, for the moment. There’s also a possible federal informant in the criminals’ midst, and The Outfit stitches together a locked-room mystery (who has the tape that will incriminate the gangsters and possibly reveal the informant?) and various cat-and-mouse games (how quickly can a dead body be concealed, and how readily can certain figures be shuffled in and out of the shop?). The overarching mystery is how far Leonard’s craftsmanship can extend in this life-and-death situation.
The various twists and reversals comprise a make-good for filmmaker Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for writing the wan awards bait The Imitation Game and directs his first feature here with some writerly flair. The Outfit has far less pretense of importance than Moore’s prestige project, and is all the more enjoyable for it. The banter isn’t always dazzling, but its modest wryness moves at a nice clip (“I was in the war,” Leonard tells Mable. “At your age?” she asks. “The other war,” he says wearily but politely) and is further enhanced by the soothing vocal tones of Rylance (light, gently weathered) and Deutch (tart, nasal).
Rylance and Deutch are both stars who might have worked in any number of old-fashioned potboilers from another era, and who have a knack for serving as highlights in movies that don’t necessarily reach the standards of retro timekillers. For the most part, and not a little self-consciously, The Outfit does. Even its moments of middlebrow corniness feel comforting and well-earned by the ruthlessness of its plotting. In addition to boasting near-parodic levels of its studio’s cross-pond bonafides, the movie comes across as a grown-up version of a Kingsman picture—more so, even, than that series’ recent attempt to attain dad-movie respectability. Those movies use Savile Row tailoring as elaborate window-dressing for smirky violence; The Outfit does the same, minus the smirk. With its crisply likable leads mixing it up with pleasingly chewy gangster stereotypes, it has the consistency of a good candy bar.
Director: Graham Moore
Writers: Graham Moore, Jonathan McClain
Starring: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien, Simon Russell Beale
Release Date: March 18, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.