Guy Ritchie’s Ungentlemanly Warfare Is a Disappointment

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is Guy Ritchie’s British twist on the old World War II “man on a mission” flicks. But despite being loosely based on a true story, it plays more like a cartoon.

Henry Cavill in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. (Lionsgate Films)

I’d just rediscovered how much I enjoy action films with Monkey Man. And then I had to go and ruin it with The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

It’s another one of those Guy Ritchie flicks, this one about a team of kill-crazy types who are regarded as so dangerous and disposable that they get sent on a secret suicide mission during World War II. It’s sort of a farcical British variation on The Dirty Dozen (1967), except that it’s boring as hell because you can’t identify with any of the disposable killers, who never seem to be in any real danger.

They’re led by a cheerful blank-eyed sociopath named Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill) who has a fulsome beard and mustache and laughs like this: HAH HAH HAH HAH!

Pretty much the entire team is comprised of similarly smirking and overconfident creeps who also happen to have unbeatable fighting skills, plus so much magical luck that they can’t even die. One guy gets shot in the shoulder in the last big fight scene — the Irishman in the flat cap named Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), who doesn’t smirk, so I guess he’s the natural fall guy. But he recovers almost instantly, without so much as a Band-Aid on his wound. He’s just that awesome.

Still from The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. (Lionsgate Films)

Then there’s the stoic second in command, Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), and musclebound Dane Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), a master archer who takes down Nazis with arrows faster than they can shoot bullets as well as the antsy explosives expert Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding). Among the men there’s plenty of nervous homoeroticism, with tough guys calling each other “darling” and “girls” and even pretending to hit on each other. “Pretending.”

As a big brass officer overseeing the team, Brigadier Gubbins, aka “M,” there’s Cary Elwes, who always acts like he’s playing a part in a terribly amusing spoof of something. He portrays the brigadier as a cartoonish toff and goes around smoking a pipe in so fatuous a manner that you keep expecting it to start blowing bubbles. His assistant, played by pale blond Freddie Fox, is a young officer who introduces himself as “Fleming — Ian Fleming.” Get it? I believe that’s what the kids today call an “Easter egg” or something.

The Nazis are represented as so formidable a foe that England is tottering, and gruff old Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) is about to get booted out of his prime minister post, yet at the same time our murder-happy gang can somehow overwhelm a heavily guarded German prison camp as if it were a clown college and the clowns were only armed with cream pies. The whole movie plays like an ultraviolent episode of Hogan’s Heroes, only not nearly as entertaining. There’s no manic, monocled Colonel Klink to fret about botching things up again. And there’s no Sergeant Schultz to restate his anxious mantra: “I see nothing! I hear nothing! I know nothing!”

But of course there’s the token sexy woman on the team, always a feature of Hogan’s Heroes. She’s a character named Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González), there to lure the top Nazi commander and sadistic sicko Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger) into giving up secrets. In a truly abysmal climactic scene, González as Stewart wears a badly fitting, backless white satin dress and distracts the Nazis by singing the worst version of “Mack the Knife” that has ever been, or ever will be, sung.

A moment here and there indicates that Stewart is attracted to Hogan — sorry, I mean March-Phillipps. At the end of the movie, we’re informed through a series of intertitle cards that the real-life Stewart wound up married to March-Phillips. We’re shown photos of the “actual people” and, of course, they look nothing like the people in the movie. Stewart resembles somebody’s rather plain but lively aunt. And the men tend to be pale, gaunt, not at all macho-looking British World War II guys, all with little David Niven mustaches. I suppose that’s one reason James Bond creator Ian Fleming wanted Niven to play 007. It probably helped that Niven actually fought in World War II.

The movie insists on its “based on a true story” status at the beginning and again at the end. In between, we’re watching little more than goofy shenanigans. But it appears the film is based on Damien Lewis’s 2014 nonfiction book Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII, and that Churchill did indeed gather a clandestine team of commandos to gain a fighting edge over the Nazis and “set Europe ablaze.” The mission portrayed in the film, called Operation Postmaster, did involve trying to sink Nazi supply ships off the coast of the Spanish island of Fernando Po. But it “wasn’t remotely the spectacular bloodbath Ritchie portrays it as,” which we can tell without even reading up on it.

Still from The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. (Lionsgate Films)

Guy Ritchie has a $60 million budget to recover on this stupid thing. Though if he doesn’t, it’ll make three flops in a row for the director, with Ungentlemanly Warfare representing “another box-office misfire after the heist film Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre and the war thriller Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, both of which went to theaters last year and failed to match their production budgets in global grosses.”

It’s remarkable that Ritchie’s kept his directing career going as long as he has. But it sure will be a relief to many action film fans if it could end after The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

To be fair, I should note that Ritchie’s movie isn’t getting slaughtered by critics. There are a surprising number of indulgent reviewers recommending this thing, even if only to claim it’s “the perfect airplane movie,” which, if not exactly a compliment, is not exactly a dis either, as they say.

I guess there’s more affection for Ritchie’s action film stylings than I realized, having assumed that he’d worn out his welcome many years ago. But just look how respectfully his whole messy cinematic career is being treated:

All the way back to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie has been jazzing up genre movies (gangster stories, mostly) with crackling dialogue and trick camera moves. While hardly shy on attitude, Ministry finds the stylistically aggressive director in a tamer, slightly more traditional mode, featuring relatively conservative repartee (including loads of clunky exposition) and fairly straightforward set-pieces. As a whole, the movie hews to the standard men-on-a-mission formula, joining classics such as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen in assembling a pack of highly skilled — if slightly disreputable — pros to attempt the impossible.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that this movie sucks and that putting Ungentlemanly Warfare into any kind of “classic” category is sheer insanity. I won’t even give it credit for being “the perfect airplane film.” Let’s just say it’s an airplane film and leave it at that.