The sartorial pleasures of a Guy Ritchie movie are nothing to scoff at, even when you can’t say the same for the movie itself. The writer-director’s new comic thriller, “The Gentlemen,” is a starry but curiously low-impact return to the twisty, garrulous British gangster pictures with which he made his reputation years ago, starting with 1999’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” As an evening’s entertainment, it’s almost passable — genially diverting one minute, sour and self-satisfied the next. As a men’s fashion showcase, it’s exemplary — a parade of neatly tailored charcoal waistcoats, colorful flannel tracksuits and a lovely ribbed cardigan that Charlie Hunnam wears like a second skin.
Those costumes (designed by Michael Wilkinson) remind you that Ritchie is as much a stylist as a storyteller, though at his intermittent best he can make the two seem almost indistinguishable. His sweet spot has always been the expression of a personal brand of cinematic cool, where heightened individual moments and visuals — a violent smash cut, an outrageous line reading, the cut of a man’s bomber jacket or the sight and sound of a woman’s stilettos clacking on the pavement — can signal as much meaning as the bigger narrative picture, maybe even more.
Ritchie seems to have mislaid that cool in his recent forays into big-budget fantasy, including the semi-charming “Aladdin,” the migraine-inducing “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and two noisy attempts to turn Robert Downey Jr. into Sherlock Holmes. “The Gentlemen” marks a concerted, often strained effort to get it back. It’s been a while since the director, now 51, unfurled a tale of Cockney crooks stealing about contemporary London, where bodies fall out of windows and four-letter words are deployed so inventively and repeatedly as to become a kind of music. An unmistakable sense of nostalgia thus pervades the whole exercise; it can be fun watching Ritchie slip back into his old tweeds, even if the fit feels off and the whole thing smells a little funny.
Perhaps that odor is just stale weed. At the center of the script’s tightly nested plotlines is Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey, in amiably cocksure form), an American expat who got his start dealing marijuana at Oxford years ago and now runs an enormous London drug-dealing operation, thanks to his financial arrangements with various local lords and ladies who have allowed him to build secret weed farms beneath their country estates.
Now happily married to his own formidable “Cockney Cleopatra” (Michelle Dockery, as sharp as her aforementioned stilettos), he’s looking to retire early and offload a business worth hundreds of millions to an American billionaire named Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, “Succession”). Their deal will naturally go awry, thanks to a rival gang of Chinese heroin dealers trying to place their own bid on Pearson’s empire, and also thanks to some scrappy young boxers who raid one of Pearson’s underground pot bunkers.
The boxers are a technologically savvy bunch, and they like to make videos of their rowdy exploits. This turns out not to be “The Gentlemen’s” only film-within-a-film conceit. The entire story is framed by a lengthy encounter between Pearson’s right-hand man, Ray (Hunnam), and an aggressively sleazy private investigator, Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who threatens to turn his knowledge of Pearson’s operation into a screenplay. This occasions much meta-nonsense from Fletcher about the joys of 35-millimeter celluloid and the alleged tedium of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” a jab that would be funnier if this movie itself were better.
Even still, this framing device, which at times suggests a Quentin Tarantino riff on “Sleuth,” is one of the better elements in “The Gentlemen,” mainly because the fast-talking Grant is such an effortlessly pleasurable skeeze and Hunnam makes such a charmingly straight-faced foil. McConaughey may be the big-name draw here, but his character notably recedes from the action for strategic stretches, allowing his mostly male costars — including Colin Farrell, in a gem of a turn as a quick-fisted, disarmingly well-mannered boxing coach — to take center stage.
As for those Chinese gangsters, they serve a couple of functions here — some of them aesthetic, since their up-and-coming ringleader is played by Henry Golding, the dashing Malaysian English star of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Rather less enjoyably, they also wind up on the receiving end of a few crudely stereotypical punchlines, which the movie trusts you’ll mistake for its characters’ rough-edged bigotry rather than its own. Ritchie is at least an equal-opportunity race baiter; also coming in for their share of barbs are Strong’s Jewish kingpin and a black boxer (Bugzy Malone) who gets called a term that can’t be printed in this newspaper, but whose general, everyday use the movie spends a fair amount of time defending.
It’s hard not to sense the director thumbing his nose at his critics and courting reflexive outrage, right down to a plot thread that culminates with a shot of the logo of Miramax, the film company cofounded by Harvey Weinstein. Ritchie is clearly enjoying himself, which is fine; someone should. But what’s intriguing about these blips of teasingly naughty, semi-reactionary humor isn’t that they’re offensive; offending us would actually require more effort. Rather, it’s that they feel so coy and noncommittal, descriptions that can also be applied to Ritchie’s own wobbly sleight-of-hand storytelling.
What’s real in this movie and what isn’t? Is that gold-plated weapon a real pistol or just a paperweight? Is that character we see getting his brains blown out really dead, or did he somehow miraculously survive? Is this movie a mild waste of time, or an awful one? You be the judge. Enjoy the clothes.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 24 in general release