Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ is the Same Old Ritchie

Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Guy Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel
Stars: Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson

Synopsis: In 1940, a covert combat organization for Britain’s military that changes the course of World War II through its unconventional and entirely ‘ungentlemanly’ fighting techniques against the Nazis.

Guy Ritchie’s new film centers on a swath of righteous, bloodthirsty Brits — all played by ridiculously handsome Hollywood B-and-C-listers, some of whom are, indeed, British — and has a great deal of gore to offer, but is ultimately a comedy. Everyone talks fast and comes armed with clips full of bullets and quips to spare. They dress well, fitting in where they almost certainly should stand out, and kill loads of enemies with relative ease and minimal harm suffered, if any at all. By the end, they’ve achieved their goals, strutting into the night as heroes, often with explosive clouds of fire ballooning into the sky behind them, bodies at their feet, glory in their grasp.

I easily could have qualified that description with a cursory “stop me if you’ve heard this before” disclaimer, but that would rid us all of the fun realization that, in many ways, this project summary could serve as a half-decent sketch for most of Ritchie’s previous projects. The director of 15 feature films, six of which have been released in the last five years, never seems to rest; perhaps because another identifying feature of his body of work is the ease with which they go down, like a shot of zero-proof whiskey. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the film the top of review was actually teasing, is no exception to most of Ritchie’s rules; the only thing that differentiates it from his typical work, save for 2023’s Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, is that this story is (at least partly) true. Well, that, and the lack of Hugh Grant popping up wearing curious glasses and smoking a pipe. 

Based on Damian Lewis’s astonishingly-long-titled book, “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII”, the similarly-wordy The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare sees Ritchie operating squarely in his bag of tricks, for better and for worse. It sets out to do little beyond entertain — a good starting point for humorous action flicks heading to the big screen these days — and if we’re meant to judge a film based on that trait alone, it’s a resounding success. It charts the efforts of Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill) and his bruising brotherhood of bonafide killing machines (Alan Ritschson, Henry Golding, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and Alex Pettyfer), who set out to disrupt Nazi occupation in Europe through unorthodox methods of combat. 

They all do quite a bit of shooting, stabbing, and exploding; espionage is the name of their game, with Marjorie Stewart and Mr. Heron (Eiza González and Babs Olusanmokun, respectively) taking on the bulk of informant responsibilities. Blood is shed, tricks are played, and dialogue is exchanged at alarming speeds. I mean, really, what more could you want from a globetrotting kill-fest starring a few of Hollywood’s lesser-seen hunks, all led by Zack Snyder’s Superman, who happens to be sporting a mustache Hercule Poirot would be proud to pin on his vision board?

But beyond that basic setup, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’s substance is limited, if it exists somewhere in this 120-minute blow-em-up at all. It’s not quite a rip-off Inglourious Basterds, but if that must be the obvious comparison, suffice it to say that a Quentin Tarantino caper, this is not. Ritchie is perfectly capable of setting off visual fireworks in the form of gunfire, but he’s always lacked when it comes to stakes. Not that anyone necessarily needs stakes to latch onto when the primary purpose of this group’s mission is to take out Hitler’s henchmen by any means necessary; yet there’s a startling lack of ingenuity to this brand of excitement. Most audiences will buy tickets based on what the trailer promises: Guns, bombs, more guns, and a few more bombs. The question is whether or not they’ll be able to recall any specific moment from the film in which that weaponry was used, let alone recite a single line any of its characters uttered. 

Which is not to say that Ritchie’s recent past projects have set out to do otherwise. If you’ll indulge me in a bit of time travel, we’ll start by revisiting his live-action Aladdin remake from 2019, a ghastly rendition of Disney’s animated classic that only gets remembered nowadays for Will Smith’s turn as the otherwise-iconic genie, something we’d all like to forget. Then, in 2020, Ritchie offered up The Gentlemen, a starry and often funny crime romp about the potential sale of a cannabis empire that sets off a wave of blackmail and revenge schemes in England’s criminal underworld. (Netflix recently released a spin-off series based on the film, helmed by Ritchie, though I’m curious to know the percentage of its viewers that know it was a movie first.) The following year brought Wrath of Man, a Jason Statham-starring entry that fit squarely in Ritchie’s long line of “guy seeks revenge” films. When you boil it all down, it is basically The Beekeeper without the bees. 

And in 2023, the director’s prolific efforts reached their peak with two releases in the same calendar year. The first: Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, an SEO nightmare starring Statham as a spy who has to put together a team to steal something called “The Handle” — think a low-budget version of “The Entity” from Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning — from a very rich Hugh Grant. Next came Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, an ultra-serious war drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal about a master sergeant in the U.S. Army and his Afghan interpreter, as they fight the odds to survive. The Covenant represented a departure of sorts from Ritchie’s typical points of interest, a heavy, emotional drama with human interest in mind and a hook centered around authenticity, not farcical violence nor humor.

It was refreshing to see Ritchie take on a narrative that carried weight of its own, the sort of tale you’d expect to see from the mind of someone not behind The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Perhaps the success of that stray project, as we can fairly call it now, somewhat unfairly detracts from the experience when it comes to this one, but the problem with The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is that, at this point, a film of this nature doesn’t feel as much like a return to form for Ritchie as it does a retreat into safer territory. 

What was once a fresh brand now feels inorganic and recycled, as though each of his films have gone through a find-and-replace process just painstaking enough to ensure that no self-plagiarism has been committed. In other words: Six of one, half a dozen of the other, a phrase just long enough to be the title of Ritchie’s next film. Maybe that one will bother to have the drawing board erased before going back to it.

Grade: C-

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