“The Gentlemen” is a movie made by a filmmaker clearly very pleased with himself. That would be Guy Ritchie, writer-director-producer of this crime dramedy, which harks back to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” the picture that launched his career.
Like “Lock, Stock,” it’s an intricately structured picaresque tale featuring a rogue’s gallery of British crooks falling afoul of one another. The plot, in fact, is so convoluted that Ritchie saw fit to have his characters walk the audience through the myriad twists and turns by means of a whole lot of narrative exposition.
The dialogue is meaty — Ritchie knows this, oh does he ever — and he encouraged his cast to sink their teeth into it and savor the flavor in long expository speeches.
This produces some tasty performances, none more flavorful than that delivered by Hugh Grant. After years of portraying characters notable for their sense of somewhat abashed rectitude, he’s virtually unrecognizable as a gleefully skeevy blackmailer. He seems to be having the time of his life playing the part.
Goateed and gloating, his character leers with delight as he talks a glowering mobster named Ray (Charlie Hunnam) through his scheme to extort $20 million from Ray’s boss Mickey (Matthew McConaughey). Mickey, an American expatriate and zillionaire marijuana mogul, is looking to sell off his crooked business for $400 million and retire to live a crime-free life of leisure in which he’ll hobnob with members of the British upper crust.
Grant’s character, Fletcher, a master of getting the goods on highflying rich types by underhanded surveillance techniques, fancies getting a cut of those proceeds by threatening to write an exposé of Mickey’s business dealings and selling it to the editor of a scandal rag (Eddie Marsan). He knows he’s playing a dangerous game, but he’s so full of himself he thinks he can outsmart these crooks. Like many other key players in the picture, he’s not as smart as he believes himself to be.
McConaughey’s Mickey is a cool customer who also spends a lot of the picture talking, which is to say walking other characters though the ins and outs of his marijuana business. There are long scenes of business meetings where everything is calm and orderly until suddenly pistols appear and bullets start flying. And when the bullets fly, as in the picture’s opening scene, not everything turns out the way you’d expect.
Hunnam’s character is icy cool, until he occasionally goes berserko and then quickly reclaims his composure. An Asian gangster (Henry Golding) intent on executing a hostile takeover of Mickey’s business is likewise reasonable-seeming until, abruptly, he’s not.
Leaving indelible impressions also are Michelle Dockery, playing Mickey’s wife, Rosalind, a lethal though loving (as far as her husband is concerned) beauty, and Colin Farrell, as a low-class boxing coach having a tough time reforming a bunch of young toughs.
Ritchie piles double-cross on double-cross, clearly reveling in his plot machinations. Coming off his last picture, the gargantuan live-action Disney epic “Aladdin,” Ritchie seems much more at ease in this return to his filmmaking roots. The dialogue, the violence, the humor (largely provided by Grant’s character) and the intricacy of the storytelling make for a picture in which most everyone in it seems to be having a great deal of chatty, bloody fun.
★★★ “The Gentlemen,” with Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Eddie Marsan. Written and directed by Guy Ritchie. 113 minutes. Rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content. Opens Jan. 24 at multiple theaters.