Watching “The Gentlemen” is like sinking into a favorite chair, pouring a glass of good whiskey, and putting a favorite album on the turntable that you haven’t listened to in years.
In this case, it would be an album from some time in the late 1990s, the time period when writer-director Guy Ritchie made his mark with scruffy, cheeky British gangster films like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” The twisty, funny, violent films demanded at least two viewings — one to untangle the complicated plots, the other to try and figure out what the cast is saying in their impenetrable London East End accents.
Ritchie has gone on to a scattershot career as a blockbuster director (“Aladdin,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”), but he goes back to the well with “The Gentlemen,” in which a strong cast makes a meal out of Ritchie’s profane, loquacious dialogue.
Where to start with Ritchie’s labyrinthine plot? Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Simpson, an American expat who is Britain’s marijuana kingpin. With legalization looming, Mickey is looking to retire with his Cockney wife (Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey”) and is planning to sell his business to a billionaire (Jeremy Strong of “Succession.”)
But the sale is complicated by another gangster nicknamed Dry Eye (Henry Golding, ditching his nice-guy persona of “Crazy Rich Asians” with relish), who wants Mickey’s operation for himself. Meanwhile, a lowlife tabloid reporter named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is trying to blackmail Mickey, to the consternation of Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam). Somewhere in there is Colin Farrell as a neighborhood boxing coach with great taste in track suits.
Understand that all that is just the top layer of a very complicated plot full of double-crosses and surprises, the audience enjoyably hanging on for dear life trying to figure out who’s doing what to who and why. The entire movie is framed as a conversation between Fletcher and Ray, who are recounting recent events, and neither can be trusted as a reliable narrator. At one point, Fletcher recounts a particularly violent episode, only to reveal that he made it all up. “Every movie needs a bit of action in it,” he confesses.
That’s one of the few lines I can quote in this review, as expletives of every flavor fly fast and furiously among the characters, used almost affectionately. The cast is all good, but Grant is the real standout. In real life, Grant’s loathing of the British tabloids is well known, and he makes Fletcher a truly despicable bottom-feeder of a journalist. And yet he can’t help but make him an utterly lovable and entertaining creature as well. He’s just too much fun to watch.
And the whole film is fun, providing you’re not looking for any deeper meaning, or emotional resonance, or even basic human decency in your entertainment. If Ritchie goes back to these sorts of movies every now and then, I can forgive him for the occasional “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” Almost.