The first line in “The Gentlemen” is spoken by Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearce, a smartly tailored gangster who strolls into a London pub and orders a pint of beer and a pickled egg. The brewery’s name on the bar tap is “Gritchie,” but even without that gag it would be obvious that this is not just a Guy Ritchie film — it’s the kind of Guy Ritchie film that made him a hot property two decades ago.
To be specific, “The Gentlemen” is cut from the same cloth as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and its bigger-budgeted follow-up, “Snatch.” Mixing a love of old-school East End low-lifes, 1990s flash (freeze frames, captions, voice-overs), flamboyant dialogue, and plots so complicated that you needed a flow chart to follow them, these two Britpop-era crime capers prompted a rash of dreary copycat films about mockney geezers with guns doing dodgy drug deals.
Ritchie himself moved on, without ever fulfilling his promise to become the British Tarantino. After writing and directing “Swept Away” — a legendary turkey starring his then-wife, Madonna — his next mob movies “Revolver” and “RocknRolla” exemplified the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, he settled into being Hollywood’s leading exponent of B-list studio franchises, some more successful (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Aladdin”) than others (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”).
Now he’s back on home turf. Mobile phones and social media feature in the labyrinthine plot, half the characters have straggly beards, and Bugzy Malone does some rapping, but in every other respect “The Gentlemen” smacks of the 1990s. It even includes a shot beloved of Tarantino wannabes everywhere — a couple of guys peering into the boot of a car, as seen by the poor sap who has been stuffed inside.
To cite another example of the film’s retro sensibility, Hugh Grant plays Fletcher, a grubby private investigator who works for a tabloid newspaper edited by the frothing Big Dave (Eddie Marsan). In real life, Grant is a prominent campaigner against press misconduct, phone-hacking in particular. But in the film, his weaselly muckraker doesn’t employ anything as high-tech as phone-hacking, preferring to hide in the bushes with a long-lens camera.
His quarry is the aforementioned Mickey Pearce. After months of nosing around, Fletcher turns up at the luxurious home of Mickey’s right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) — who has surprisingly lax security for a gangster — and proposes a deal. Rather than selling Big Dave the full story of Mickey’s criminal career, he is willing to hand every photo and document to Mickey for £20 million. But what information does he have that could possibly be worth so much money? Settle in and I’ll tell you, says Fletcher, thus allowing Ritchie to dole out his narrative in a series of flashbacks, and to keep the florid narration flowing.
To cut a long, rambling story short, Mickey is an American marijuana baron who has kept his crops away from prying eyes by renting the country estates of Britain’s property-rich-but-cash-poor landed gentry and then building underground laboratories beneath them. But now he is ready to become a member of the landed gentry himself: One theme of the film is the fine line between aristocrats and gangsters, although Ritchie doesn’t have much to say on the subject that wasn’t said in “Performance” 50 years ago.
Keen to retire with his “cockney Cleopatra” wife (Michelle Dockery), Mickey offers to sell his business — lock, stock and barrel — to a fellow American (Jeremy Strong, “Succession”) for £400 million. But Dry Eye (Henry Golding), the ambitious scion of a Chinese syndicate, is determined that Mickey should sell to him instead. He then sets off a chain of fights, threats and double-crosses involving a Russian oligarch, an Irish boxing trainer (Colin Farrell), a street gang called The Toddlers, and plenty more besides.
Even if you ignore the parts which have been snipped from “Pulp Fiction” and “The Long Good Friday” and sewn into place, “The Gentlemen” is a suit stitched together from well-worn material. Compare it to Martin Scorsese’s recent return to the gangster movie, “The Irishman,” and it’s clear that while one filmmaker has brought a new depth to his favorite genre, the other is content to splash around in the shallows.
All that’s changed is that Ritchie doesn’t quite have the same dizzying verve that he used to. Fletcher says that Mickey is getting slow and soft in middle age, and the writer-director might have been talking about himself.
If “The Gentlemen” is nothing more than a trip to some of Ritchie’s old haunts, though, who can blame him for making that trip? There is no denying the nostalgic if somewhat guilty pleasure of experiencing his madly tangled plots and colorful language once again. When he is being taciturn, marijuana is “skunkanola.” When he is isn’t, it is “the dirty wonder weed” or “white widow supercheese.” Some of his more elaborate phrases are almost Shakespearean, except with more F and C words than the Bard used, and the actors relish the rare opportunity to chomp on such deliciously pungent banter.
Having been Lady Mary for so long in “Downton Abbey,” Dockery is revelatory as a hard-as-nails Jewish garage owner. (The film’s title is also an accurate indication of its gender imbalance, but one meaty female role is better than none.) Grant continues his recent crop of plum roles by pushing his accent down a couple of social classes and leaning into Fletcher’s pathetic vanity, regrettable as it may be that the film’s only gay character is so seedy and predatory. Even Hunnam’s guarded performance is competent, which is saying something.
It’s just like old times. Ritchie may not be exploring uncharted territory, but you can bet it was more fun to make “The Gentlemen” than it was to make “Aladdin” or “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” It’s more fun to watch “The Gentleman” than those films, too.