Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Josh Reviews The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Guy Ritchie’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is (loosely) based on true events from World War II, only recently declassified (and detailed in the 2014 book Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII by Damien Lewis).  It’s 1941, and Winston Churchill is desperate to find some way to disrupt the Nazis’ control of the Atlantic (via their U-Boats which are sinking a huge percentage of the ships attempting to bring supplies — and hopefully, soon, American troops — to England).  And so Churchill recruits a secret group of ruffians to mount an undercover mission to the island of Fernando Po, where an Italian supply ship is berthed, preparing to carry crucial equipment to maintain the Nazi U-Boat fleet.  If they can destroy this shipment, they can break the U-Boat control of the Atlantic.

I’m always interested in a new Guy Ritchie film, and I couldn’t resist that wonderful title.  I’m pleased to report that I had a great time watching The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.  This is a very solid WWII adventure film, with a terrific cast and some great action set-pieces.

The film’s title and the poppy trailers — as well as Guy Ritchie’s reputation — had me expecting more of a tongue-in-cheek comedic tone to the film.  But while there are some funny bits, and the film moves along with an entertaining zest throughout, the film is really just a good old solid team-on-a-mission adventure film.  Many reviewers have been comparing this to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and indeed there are some connections — both tell a story of a band of colorful & violent men on a mission to kill Nazis during WWII.  But this film doesn’t reach the incredible highs — of stomach-churning suspense or incredible dialogue — that Mr. Tarantino’s film achieves.  Actually, the film this most reminded me of was Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, which has a similar fun tone on top of a solid World War adventure (albeit WWI rather than WWII), and a similarly wonderful ensemble of actors.  Getting back to Mr. Ritchie, while watching this film I found myself comparing it in my mind to his little-seen film from last year, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre.  That film was set in present-day, but it also told a story of a team of competent & colorful operatives on a secret mission to save the world.  But while I enjoyed that film, I didn’t feel it entirely worked; the pieces didn’t all quite combine into a fully satisfying whole.  (Also, that film’s weird title didn’t work for me.)  In comparison, everything clicked just right for me here with The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

Is that because Mr. Ritchie curbed many of his defining stylistic tricks to present a clear, solidly told adventure story?  I must admit I’m torn on that!  On the one hand, I appreciated how un-showy the film was, just focusing on the fun characters and the tense story, and guiding the audience through.  On the other hand, I wonder if the film wouldn’t have been elevated even further had Mr. Ritchie been able to have a little more fun with the narrative the way his best films have (films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Sherlock Holmes).

The cast is terrific.  Henry Cavill is marvelous as team-leader Gus March-Phillipps.  Mr. Cavill was so boring and wooden (intentionally?) in the recent Argylle, but here he is charismatic and fun.  He hides his face beneath an extraordinary mustache and beard, but the performance works for me!  I liked watching this bear of a dude kick Nazi ass and have a jolly great time doing it.  Of Gus’ team, the stand-out for me — to my great surprise — was Alan Ritchson as the Danish Anders Lassen.  I’ve been complaining that I felt Mr. Ritchson has been the weakest part of his Reacher show, but wow, he’s an absolute hoot as this jovial, heart-eating killer with a bow and arrow.  (Can we bring some of this energy into Reacher season three, maybe??)  Rounding out the team are: Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as Freddy Alvarez, Alex Pettyfer as “Apple” (Geoffrey Appleyard), and Hero Fiennes Tiffin as Henry Hayes.  Assisting the operation, undercover on Fernando Po, are Babs Olusanmokun as Mr. Heron, and Eiza González (Baby Driver) as Marjorie Stewart.  I’ve been enjoying Mr. Olusanmokun’s work a lot recently, on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and as Jamis in Dune.  He’s magnetic on-screen — those eyes are powerful!  (Which helps, because I often have some trouble making out his dialogue clearly through his slightly mumbling delivery!)  Speaking of magnetic, Ms. González is a lot of fun to watch as Marjorie, who is assigned the femme fatale role of seducing and distracting the Nazi commander.  (That Cleopatra dress: wow!)  Said commander, the Nazi Heinrich Luhr, is played with tooth-clenched gusto by Til Schweiger.  He’s a wonderfully menacing villain!  Then there is Cary Elwes, always a pleasure to see on-screen, who plays “M”, the proper British officer tasked with running the mission and keeping order to this band of order-defying ruffians.  Mr. Elwes is great — though I smiled that Mr. Ritchie cast him in exactly the same role in last year’s Operation Fortune!  (And yes, that “M” is a James Bond reference.  Ian Flemming is a character in the film, and it’s clear — long before the end-titles spell it out — that the idea is that Gus served as the inspiration for James Bond.)

In a year in which Anti-Semitism has been running rampant across the globe, I was pleased that this film featured a Jewish hero (Elia González’s Marjorie) who even gets to deliver a speech about the fortitude of the Jewish people, who have survived millennia with, as Marjorie puts it, the world’s boot on their neck.

The film clearly plays fast-and-loose with the facts.  Gus’ team is impossibly and nearly super-heroicly tough and competent (able to, for instance, calmly and quickly take down a Nazi base controlled by well over fifty soldiers in a mid-movie rescue sequence).  But none of that bothered me a whit.  The film is a fun adventure, and it’s a pleasure to watch smart, brave good-guys beat the Nazis.  And as I commented above, the film is a much more straight-forward team-on-a-mission story than I’d expected, and that’s not a complaint.  This is a solidly told, easy to follow story, and I enjoyed the way Mr. Ritchie was able to crank up the tension during the third-act mission.  The film is tightly-paced and moves along briskly and entertainingly.  I look forward to seeing this again.

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