The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare Review

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare Review

If there’s one thing WWII movies can’t show enough of, it’s Nazi failures, and in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Guy Ritchie valiantly depicts a spectacular one. This is his answer to Quentin Tarrentino’s Inglourious Basterds, only lighter and with more jokes about bland German cuisine. Ritchie adapts author Damien Lewis’s 2014 tell-all about Winston Churchill’s classified execution of Operation Postmaster in 1942, borrowing British war plans for his fictionalized recreation. His clear adoration of espionage story cliches and cheeky wit turns it into a plucky, punchy, and quite entertaining reinterpretation of history that gleefully slaughters Nazis with a skip in its step. World War II gets the red-carpet Ritchie treatment, like a history lesson from the cool high school teacher who mainlines gangster movies and spaghetti westerns.

“Based on a true story” does some heavy lifting, but not as much as you’d think. Henry Cavill stars as mission leader Gus March-Phillipps, who was an actual operative for Winston Churchill’s covert organization. (Rory Kinnear, meanwhile, delivers a solid impression of the famous prime minister). Gus is asked to assemble a crack team (which he does in workmanlike montage fashion) and infiltrate the Spanish island of Fernando Po off West Africa, where a Nazi U-boat supply vessel currently anchors. That’s all true to history, from Churchill’s unsanctioned tactics to Gus’ nighttime raid, but Ritchie – an instinctual entertainer – can’t help letting his imagination run wild from there. Don’t expect a dramatic, Dunkirk-type military thriller: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare isn’t afraid to be silly or indulge in comic book-like violence, brought to life by a cast of righteous killers who treat Nazi eradication like playtime.

The real Operation Postmaster was a smashing victory that took only 30 minutes from harbor entry to swift exit, but at two hours long, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is far bloodier and more complicated. Gus first has to rescue a kidnapped ally from Nazi interrogations and nipple torture, which allows Ritchie’s ghost operatives to turn a Nazi outpost into a carnival shooting gallery and set a gung-ho tone early on.

The real Operation Postmaster was a smashing victory that took only 30 minutes.

Ritchie seems to want us to experience all the rousing military combat we can in a microcosmic WWII story without any large-scale battlefield action. Gus’ cohorts mow down platoons of Nazi soldiers on land, at sea, and everywhere in between, but thankfully action interludes are always earned with some kind of setup. There’s never a point where the collective of four different screenwriters (including Ritchie) feels like they’re running out of challenges to lob Gus’ way, nor does it go too long without entertaining action even as setbacks mount.

Perhaps that’s because there’s a gratifying spirit to The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, in the way characters whistle while they work (and by work, I mean eliminate Hitler’s troops). Cavill’s face turns to unbridled elation while blasting Nazis with his silenced automatic weapon, somehow both charming and devious. Alan Ritchson is even more fun to watch in combat as the unstoppably vengeful Anders Lassen: The Danish huntsman opts for bladed weapons or his bow and arrow, and this hulking hardbody can shoot it with such force that his modified projectiles pierce through first victims for gruesomely satisfying double kills. These are the most “ridiculous” quirks of Ritchie’s Hollywoodized fantasy, but he does well to ensure his intentions are overt and understood.

Alan Ritchson is even more fun to watch in combat as the unstoppably vengeful Anders Lassen.

For instance, Christopher Benstead’s score swaps between zippy, swing-jazz influences and whistle-blowing Italian Western hooks that evoke classic exploitation films. Maybe that hurts overall tension due to the way it becomes apparent how Gus’ agents will keep sidestepping danger. That’s a side effect, but it matters less because Ritchie clearly just wants to make a rousing action-adventurer about Nazis getting every last ounce of punishment and belittlement they deserve.

Where Ministry can drag, and where Ritchie’s ambitions buckle, is during a subplot that involves undercover agents planted in Fernando Po. Babs Olusanmokun’s unflappable casino and bar manager and Eiza González’s chameleon actress find themselves distracting a local Nazi tyrant, which creates a bounce-about effect in terms of pacing. Ritchie gets lost in the sweaty-palmed nature of plans that can’t go awry, even though González is the queen of performative coolness when pit against Til Schweiger’s ruthless German butcher Heinrich Luhr, ready to pounce at the slightest misstep. If Gus is a 1940s Bond type, Heinrich is the Bond villain in comparison. Ritchie’s quicker to fall into espionage cliches in these instances, serving the need for cat-and-mouse dynamics that are less successful when you have Gus’ commandos playing gangbusters as a contrast.

The large ensemble leaves some characters yearning for more definition.

The large ensemble leaves some characters yearning for more definition, although there’s hardly a dud in the bunch. Henry Golding’s Freddy “Froggy” Alvarez is introduced as this miracle swimmer and demolitions expert with an arson hobby, but those intriguing defining qualities almost seem forgotten afterward — he’s rendered a Plain Jane as other actors take center stage. On the opposite side of that complaint is Cary Elwes’ decorated British official, Gubbins, who devours every line of command room banter.

Ritchie’s never at his worst (looking at you King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, with someone like Freddy as a perfect example of an elevated floor. Gus’ explosives guy might not be the most well-defined and memorable member of his renegade rogues, but he’s never a hindrance. At the end of the day, when they’re all this effective at gunning through Nazis, you’d have to fumble every character arc to fully waste that potential.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *