You watch leading men Matthew McConaughey, Henry Golding, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam and Colin Farrell sink their teeth into bloody rich character roles in Guy Ritchie’s crime-comedy-thriller “The Gentlemen,” and you get the feeling they had as much making it as we’re having watching it.
From the moment a main character enters a pub, orders a pint and a pickled egg — and a shot rings out, filling his glass with a bloody chaser — to the introduction of a gang of skilled young fighters who wear fantastically ridiculous tartan track suits and record their criminal exploits so they can post them online, to a wickedly funny episode involving a sleazy tabloid editor and one very large pig, “The Gentlemen” never ceases to surprise and amuse.
I could have done without the cheap, racially tinged “jokes,” and there are a few moments when the screenplay is too clever by half. Overall, though, this is a badass return to early, R-rated career form by Ritchie, who made his bones with the likes of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000), before embarking on an up-and-down career spanning everything from the historically awful “Swept Away” to the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” films to last year’s live-action version of “Aladdin.”
The opening credits and the soundtrack and the shock-moments and the cinematic in-jokes are Tarantino-cool. The performances from the deeply talented roster of familiar actors are universally sharp, as just about everyone has at least one showcase moment and the chance to display spot-on comedic timing.
McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson is an American expat who rose from humble Texas beginnings to become the marijuana crime boss of Great Britain. Like all the gentlemen in “The Gentlemen,” Mickey tries to comport himself as such, but he’s not really a gentleman. Sure, he can don a tux and acquit himself well at an upper-crust dinner party, but if you cross him, he’ll shoot you and hang your corpse on a hook in a freezer, a la “Goodfellas.”
Mickey’s empire, which includes production and distribution, is extremely lucrative — but he’s reached the point where he’s willing to sell the entire operation so he can ease off the accelerator and enjoy the good life with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery from “Downton Abbey”), a tough cookie right out of a 1950s film noir.
The mere possibility Mickey’s empire could be in play sets off a wide-ranging, byzantine chain reaction involving power grabs and attempted mob-style hits and betrayals.
Hugh Grant, employing a Cockney accent and sporting a leather jacket, goatee and tinted glasses that make him look like a tall version of Al Pacino circa “Donnie Brasco,” plays Fletcher, a seedy, amoral private eye who acts as a narrator of sorts for the story, in the guise of pitching a screenplay he’s written based on the “real-life” underworld events he has witnessed and chronicled.
Fletcher has what he believes is an airtight plan to blackmail Mickey to the tune of 20 million pounds. He makes his case to Charlie Hunnam’s Ray, who is Mickey’s right-hand man — an individual of sophistication and taste, and or course violence.
The narrative hops back and forth between multiple storylines that seem unrelated until they’re not. Jeremy Strong from “Succession” plays a wealthy businessman with a keen interest in buying up Mickey’s whole operation. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is “Dry Eye,” a power-hungry young gangster who like to use jungle analogies when threatening the current crime establishment.
And then, seemingly out of another movie, we meet Colin Farrell’s “Coach,” a neighborhood legend who runs a boxing gym and is a mentor to troubled lads. When the Coach inadvertently runs afoul of Mickey and must make amends by doing him a favor or two, he stresses this isn’t his world and all he wants to do is settle his “debt” and move on — but he sure has a knack for getting things done, no matter what it takes.
As for McConaughey playing a marijuana kingpin: sure, it seems like the acting version of a layup when he riffs on different names for pot, or he’s engaging in sly banter with adversaries.
But there’s more to the performance than that. When Mickey is challenged or backed into a corner, McConaughey effortlessly shifts gears and is chillingly convincing as a killer.
And that’s why “The Gentlemen” works so well. Even though it’s a mostly comedic albeit blood-spattered lark, McConaughey et al. are seriously committed to delivering the laughs.