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‘The Gentlemen’: Blithe Thuggery With Flair to Spare

Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” expands the concept of a selfie—mostly to the good, as far as it goes. It’s a movie in which pleasingly self-enchanted actors play comically self-important characters pursuing elaborately self-serving schemes. Yet the story’s appeal is self-limiting, since the substance matters less than the self-referential style, the reference being to Mr. Ritchie’s early films in exactly the same vein.

That means he’s back in the milieu of his electrifying 1998 debut feature “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and of the decreasingly electric “Snatch” (2000), “Revolver” (2005) and “RocknRolla” (2008)—the London of criminal toughs and toffs, all notable for extravagant vocabularies and a fondness for picturesque violence. (A partial exception was

Brad Pitt’s

character in “Snatch,” an Irish Traveler boxer who spoke almost incomprehensible English.)

The king of the crooked hill in this new caper is

Mickey Pearson,

an American expat played purringly by

Matthew McConaughey.

Mickey wants to sell a vastly profitable empire built on marijuana, which he grows in subterranean, tech-intensive farms hidden beneath a dozen of England’s statelier homes. (The owners need the rent he pays them to keep their old landmarks from rotting.) The plot turns on whether Mickey will prevail against an assortment of competitors and miscreants who want to relieve him of his profits. They include a suave Chinese thug, Dry Eye (

Henry Golding

); a Chinese drug lord named, appropriately, Lord George (

Tom Wu

); a disreputable private eye, Fletcher (

Hugh Grant

); and Matthew (Jeremy Strong, from “Succession”), a fey American billionaire who wants to buy Mickey’s horticultural venture, though not necessarily at the asking price.

As in other

Guy Ritchie

movies of this ilk, the narrative scheme is exuberantly complex and further complicated by misdirection—not bad direction, since Mr. Ritchie is nothing if not a skilled filmmaker, but the sort of sly hoodwinking practiced by magicians. What seems to be happening in a given scene—especially in one early scene of particular significance—may not be what’s happening at all. (Mr. Ritchie has had variable success directing in other ilks. His “Sherlock Holmes,” with

Robert Downey Jr.

in the title role, was clever if overwrought. His live-action remake of “Aladdin” wasn’t very good but made oodles of moola. His “King Arthur: Legend Of the Sword,” with a plague of digital animals and

Charlie Hunnam

as the king, was a pox on Camelot and a flop.)

Colin Farrell and Charlie Hunnam


Photo:

STXfilms

I might recount more of the plot of “The Gentlemen” if there were a way to do so clearly, but clarity is the least of Mr. Ritchie’s concerns. He’s a virtuoso of whimsical intricacy. “We’re not a newspaper,” says a tabloid editor played by

Eddie Marsan,

“we’re a blood sport.” The film is a blood sport in which gallons of blood are spilled, mostly for laughs but also for noting the uses of brutish power by the allegedly upper as well as the lower classes. The result is a sequence of events that’s both intriguing and gossamer-thin. You enjoy the challenge of figuring out who’s doing what to whom and for what devious reasons, but it all goes out of your head once the story ends and the lights come up.

The Prospero of the piece is Mr. Grant’s Fletcher, the dirty detective. Instead of conjuring storms or raising the dead he confronts Mickey’s assistant, Ray (Charlie Hunnam again), with a movie script he’s created, a drama grounded in scrupulous snoopery that amounts to a blueprint for blackmailing Mickey. Fletcher doesn’t just leave the script with Ray, as a screenwriter might leave a first draft with his agent. He evokes its lurid details in a performance within a performance that’s worth the price of admission to the movie outside the movie. In a word, Mr. Grant is sensational. In two more words, he’s absolutely hilarious; it’s some of the best work he’s done on screen, and that’s not forgetting “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “About A Boy ” or “Love Actually.”

Michelle Dockery and Matthew McConaughey


Photo:

STXfilms

But then terrific performances are what Mr. Ritchie’s better films are about. Mr. McConaughey does an updated version of himself with easeful élan; Mickey is a smoothie until called to do battle that he relishes. Mr. Hunnam is a study in lethal self-containment.

Michelle Dockery

doesn’t have much to do—she’s the token female, Mickey’s wife, Rosalind—but she’s sharp and funny doing it. It’s good to see Mr. Strong outside the family circle of “Succession,” though not as enjoyable as it might have been; his portrayal of the super-rich Matthew is one note, a vacuous sulk. The opposite is true of

Colin Farrell,

who turns a minor character, an athletic coach named Coach, into a major presence. The scruffy scrapper comes out of nowhere, with no allegiance to anyone at first, and is defined mainly by his dazzling verbal riffs, but he makes himself indispensable, and Mr. Farrell makes him mesmerizing. Never underestimate the power of language flowing from an Irish mouth with a silver tongue.

Write to Joe Morgenstern at [email protected]

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