The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare review – Guy Ritchie’s fun wartime romp

Estimated read time 4 min read

Guy Ritchie’s inevitable graduation from London to Hollywood has had its moments – the rambunctious zip of the first Sherlock Holmes, the stylish homoeroticism of The Man from UNCLE – but it soon felt as if the once electrifying film-maker had been swallowed up by the system. A middling Sherlock sequel, a pointless King Arthur non-starter and a soulless Aladdin remake seemed like enough to push not just fans away but Ritchie himself. He’s since found a happier medium, making films for a broad, commercial audience with easily marketable stars yet on, what seem like, his own terms, wrestling some control back from the money men.

He’s barely stopped ever since, with five films made over five years and two more slotted into the next, and there is an expectedly solid, workmanlike quality to his recent work, never enough for a four-star rating but never risking a two. His latest, the annoyingly titled The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is another adequate three-star entry, a little better than his breezy spy caper Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre and a little less effective than his swaggering revenge thriller Wrath of Man (both three stars, natch).

Jason Statham might not be involved this time but one can easily imagine him slotting into the lead role of a roguish thrill-seeker recruited for a dangerous mission. More so than Henry Cavill, who often struggles to convince as someone who hates the rulebook almost as much as he hates to shave. He plays Gus March-Phillips, who led what was later called Operation Postmaster, a covert operation of unruly agents (including Reacher’s Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer and Henry Golding) who were sent to west Africa to sabotage Nazi U-boats during the second world war. March-Phillips was allegedly an inspiration for what was to become James Bond, with a young Ian Fleming involved in the mission at the time. Like Operation Fortune, it acts as an R-rated riposte to the more polite antics of 007 as well as Ethan Hunt but is mostly reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s fictionalised Inglourious Basterds, another raucous second world war tale.

Ritchie’s film, based on Damien Lewis’s 2014 book Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII, might have its basis in truth but it’s been exaggerated and contorted into something grander and sillier, for better and worse. As another one of the director’s mid-budget, mid-level crowd-pleasers, it mostly works – well-made enough to distract in the moment but not quite enough to last in the many after, unlikely to catapult him to the top or sink him to the bottom. Like most of his more watchable films, it’s propelled by an abundance of energy, infectious enough to temporarily lead you away from major quibbles but like his last team-on-a-mission caper Operation Fortune, the zingers don’t quite zing enough, and this time there are added attempts to try to ape Tarantino with some rather awkwardly overwritten banter.

Yet his ability to construct an involving action sequence remains hard to fault and there’s a juvenile joy to how violent it all gets, especially in the hands of Ritchson’s bloodthirsty madman. There’s also a more surprising joy in how queer some of it feels, Ritchie again inserting both under- and overtones that prove interesting in territory as macho as this. The entire cast is modeled and styled like a fashion spread, with shirtless muscular soldiers running around in the background, and there are scenes of Ritchson making overtures towards the other men, at one point directly towards Golding’s character. It’s not quite enough to prove radical and definitely not enough to offend homophobic international censors but it’s a fun, frisky little ingredient nonetheless.

If Cavill doesn’t have quite as much of the deranged charm his role requires, Ritchson more than makes up for it with Eiza Gonzalez and Dune’s Babs Olusanmokun ably assisting as an undercover duo. Til Schweiger’s villainous Nazi might just be Basterds’ Hans Landa in diet form but he pitches it right, delivering a performance as bombastic and unsubtle as the film that surrounds him.

It’s looking like another commercial miss for Ritchie according to early tracking, and with his last two films also counting as box office disappointments, it may be that his run of throwaway genre larks with decent budgets could be coming to an end. It would be a shame if that were the case though because even Ritchie on autopilot has him flying higher than many of his peers.

  • The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is out in US cinemas on 19 April and in the UK at a later date


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