Guns, gangs and geezers … it's like 1998 all over again. Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen harks back to the British filmmaker's early days, when Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch established him as a director for the Loaded magazine generation.
This tale of a high-end drug dealer is classic Ritchie terrain: violent, profane and glibly funny. It's back to a world he understands, after a decade or so in Hollywood rebooting iconic characters such as Aladdin and Sherlock Holmes.
Ritchie is a born yarn-spinner, and The Gentlemen is exactly that. Much of it is spun by sleazy private detective Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who arrives at the well-appointed home of the highly capable criminal Ray (Charlie Hunnam) with the intention of blackmailing Ray's boss, Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) for £20 million (Dh95.5m). That's not the first dilemma Mickey is facing, as he looks to offload his business to an American counterpart, played by Jeremy Strong.
Ritchie unearths some nice details here – Mickey's farms are all located beneath the stately homes of British aristocrats who have fallen in hard times and need the cash.
Fletcher is looking to expose Mickey – his connections to the tabloid press have led him into the orbit of Big Dave (Eddie Marian), a foul-mouthed "editor extraordinaire" who has got it in for Mickey after he spurned him at a high-class function.
There are plenty of other strands too in this shaggy dog story, from the rescuing of a junkie offspring of one of Mickey's upper-class connections to the arrival of Colin Farrell's Irish boxing coach, who oversees the yobs that raid Mickey's farm.
Nobody could accuse The Gentlemen of being boring, with a plot that clicks along like a speedboat skimming across the water. It's a shame that Ritchie can't help but litter his script with expletive-ridden dialogue.
Performance-wise, the plaudits will deservedly be taken by Grant, who has ditched his bumbling, floppy-haired lover of the 1990s to become a character actor of distinction. After his various turns in Cloud Atlas and his criminally inclined thespian in Paddington 2, Grant's work here as the oily Fletcher is highly compelling; that the actor himself was involved in skewering the tabloids in the Leveson Inquiry only adds to the fun.
As for McConaughey, he's fine – but he never hits the highs, say, of his hitman in Killer Joe, the film that relaunched his career. It might be simply that Mickey isn't that interesting a character; a man bored of his own business, and it translates to the audience. He isn't heroic enough that your want to see him succeed; nor is he slimy enough to absolutely despise.
At least those around him are enjoying themselves. Michelle Dockery, who plays Mickey's wife, has a blast dismantling her cut-glass Downton Abbey image, though an assault that she suffers is an uncomfortable and unpleasant aside in the story. Crazy Rich Asians's Henry Golding also makes an appearance as Dry Eye, a wannabe Chinese gangster with his eyes on Mickey's £400 million business.
This being Ritchie, there's plenty of comeuppance for characters that deserve it. Whether you will care, though, is another matter; like those earlier Ritchie films, the director never manages to elevate the tone above the cartoonish and the caricature. The casual racist banter also sits uneasily throughout much of the film.
Along the way, you'll find some impressive youngsters – not least the pale, waiflike Eliot Sumner, daughter of musician Sting and former Lock, Stock… producer Trudie Styler, who plays the aforementioned posh drug addict. But it's never quite enough to bring the film to a hugely original conclusion. At least The Gentlemen is unlikely to have the impact of Lock, Stock… and cause an avalanche of inferior knock-offs. That would be criminal.