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Review: ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Goes Bang with a Whimper

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 28, 2024 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 28, 2024 |


Guy Ritchie, like most directors who become widely known entities unto themselves— mainstream “auteurs,” if you will—found a place in the pop culture consciousness by carving out a niche in a liminal space between high-brow and low-brow. Like his cohort of iconoclasts who came to prominence in the 1990s, his brash style, quippy dialogue, and flair for non-linear storytelling not only made Ritchie’s career, but paved the way for a generation of filmmakers he inspired. He hardly originated the stylistic elements that made his name, but brought a kind of style previously seen in arthouse and experimental fare to a far more mainstream audience.

Unfortunately, also like many of his peers several decades into their careers, Ritchie’s output as of late—marred by fits and starts in terms of box office performance—has felt like a shadow of its former self, half-heartedly gesturing at the qualities that once made him remarkable but now feel like the off-brand knock-offs version of what used to be the cutting edge. Ritchie has been the kind of filmmaker who flips back and forth between big hits (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and massive misfires (Swept Away), but in the past several years his output has split the difference between his former triumphs and tragedies to films perhaps best described as deeply okay-ish.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Ritchie’s latest, is “based on a true story” in the loosest sense of the word. The year is 1941, and things aren’t looking good for the Allied forces. A particular thorn in the UK’s side is the naval dominance of German U-boats. Thus, with under-the-table backing from Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear), spymaster Colin Gubbins (Cary Elwes, eminently charming as always although not a single line of his dialogue capitalizes on it) initiates “Operation Postmaster,” a clandestine mission to incapacitate the Nazi U-boat fleet. The goal? Disrupt the supply chain of necessary U-boat maintenance materials by sabotaging a crucial resupply operation set to take place on the Spanish-controlled island of Fernando Po, off the western coast of Africa.

Gubbins’s first order of business is assembling his team. First on the list is special ops veteran Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill)—the obvious choice for the job, considering he’s the Witcher. I am, of course, joking, but the film’s claims as to what makes Gus such a standout are so hand-wavy and unsubstantiated you might as well fill in the blank with an explanation of your choice.

It’s then Gus who fills out the rest of the operation. It’s a motley crew but effectively a pre-existing one of the remarkably lethal Danish naval officer Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson, rocking a winning combination of giant arms and tiny glasses), explosives expert Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding, shockingly forgettable), sailor Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), and strategist Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer). Usually, one of the joys of a film like this one is the banter of a group of big personalities figuring out how to come together and work as a team. Such banter—and just any sense of tension, more broadly—is curiously absent from the film, which seems largely uninterested in exploring anyone’s character beyond their preferred methods of killing people. No one is expecting an in-depth character study here, of course, but you can hardly show a compelling clash of personalities without first establishing some personalities.

While Gus gathers his team, actress Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González) and club owner Mr. Herron (Babs Olusanmokun) are the boots on the ground feeding Gus’s team information from Fernando Po. Narratively speaking, it is really more Marjorie movie than anyone else’s, in the sense that she actually has a character arc that can be tracked over the course of the film. From the beginning, she is the only character who really has clearly established personal stakes in the mission (she is Jewish), and a specific antagonist she must face off against, SS Commander Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger). The particular shape of her character arc feels, at best, overly familiar, but at least it’s there.

Ultimately, that’s the underlying issue with Ministry—what’s there is mostly fine, sometimes decent, and occasionally even good-ish—the real trouble is what isn’t there. The film is rife with a sense of incompleteness; missing tension, missing relationships, missing a sense of fun. Look at the brash flair, the highly choreographed sight gags in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the earlier films that earned Guy Ritchie his reputation. What’s on offer here, even when it works passably, simply isn’t comparable. I spent the movie looking for one standout kill to highlight and hit the credits empty handed. Anders Lassen’s preferred method is a bow and arrow, so there’s some novelty there for a World War II movie. That’s about it. The wit simply isn’t witty and the blood splatter is uninspired; the best punchline in the whole thing is a well-timed f-bomb. Overall, it’s a solid C- effort from a filmmaker who, admittedly, has done worse, but is also capable of much better. Or at least, it might be more accurate to say, he used to be.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is now playing in theaters.