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Review: 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' is Guy Ritchie With Another Not-So-Near Miss

Kurt Loder on

You would think -- no, you'd be nearly certain -- that any nonfiction book about the creation of military black ops on a Nazi-infested island off the coast of Africa in 1942 ... well, you'd think that such a story could easily be turned into a ripping-good movie. And maybe you'd be right -- although now we may never know. Because the book -- the 2014 "Churchill's Secret Warriors" by Damien Lewis - has been turned into a movie, but the man who's done the turning is director Guy Ritchie. I feel your foreboding.

Ritchie has made some popular and very profitable pictures over the last 20-odd years -- the Robert Downey "Sherlock Holmes" films, the money-minting Will Smith version of "Aladdin." But he has also demonstrated a fondness for clunky action junk, like the 2021 "Wrath of Man" and last year's trifling "Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre." He may have been hoping for something classier with his latest, "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." If so, the hoping may not be over.

The movie gets off to a solid start, enlivened by a cast that is virtually bursting with charm (Henry Cavill, Alan Ritchson and Eiza Gonzalez are among the many performers passing through). Ritchie also brought in the apparently immortal producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who's been supervising action hits (like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) for 50 years.

Unfortunately, the picture was crippled in advance by its script, which was written by the director and three collaborators and is filled with dialogue intended to be light and larky but is actually overabundant and lacking in crackle, dragging the movie down like an anchor. (One dashing character, addressing a captive female, says, "Come on, let's get you out of these shackles.")

It's a shame the movie is so underpowered and limply executed (there are lots of explosions and gunplay, but mostly for naught; stylish action choreography isn't one of Ritchie's gifts). The real-world story on which the movie is based, which Ritchie fails to tell very clearly, is actually interesting. In the early innings of World War II, Great Britain was being cut off from crucial supply ships by ruthless German U-boat attacks. The Brits, a sporting bunch, believed that there were standards of decency ought to be observed in times of war; the Nazis, unsurprisingly, didn't feel that way at all. But then neither did Winston Churchill, the old soldier who became the British prime minister in 1940. Churchill oversaw the formation of a group called the Special Operations Executive, composed of agents with eccentric skills (one's an actor, one's a chess grandmaster, one's really good with a bow and arrows). This offbeat unit was dedicated to spying and sabotage and other dirty tricks -- "ungentlemanly warfare," as someone presumably put it. When the SOE got word that two enemy ships were anchored in the harbor of the Spanish-controlled island of Fernando Po, off of Cameroon, a bold plan was devised. One night, SOE operatives secretly installed on the island organized two cocktail parties onshore (one for officers, the other for enlisted men), to which they lured the unwary Germans. Preoccupied with these festivities, the enemy soldiers didn't notice their two ships being quietly hijacked and towed off into the night.

 

Watching this operation unfold onscreen, I wondered what Steven Spielberg -- the Spielberg of the 1980s, the "Indiana Jones" era -- might have made of Ritchie's picture, which was shot in Turkey and is very low on visual invention and exotic atmosphere. Surely Spielberg would have slapped the movie into shape, tightening the narrative (which drags at times, burdened by too much talk), clarified the story (with its complex mix of characters), and cleaned up the action (at one point a group of SOE men walk around casually shooting bad guys while barely looking at them). But that's why he's Spielberg, and others -- no names! -- aren't.

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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