‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Review: Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson in Guy Ritchie’s Slapdash Tale of WWII Derring-Do (2024)

With 2023’s compelling Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle The Covenant, Guy Ritchie took a more serious dramatic turn, away from the flashy action, glib humor and mashup of period settings with contemporary attitude that had characterized many of his biggest commercial successes. With its typically Ritchie-esque ensemble of quippy rascals, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare sees the director back on more customary territory. Sort of. Chronicling a covert World War II mission manned by a band of renegades, the movie is diverting but remains awkwardly stuck between a larkish caper and a more gripping combat action thriller.

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Scripted by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel and Ritchie, based on the nonfiction book by war specialist Damien Lewis, the remarkable story comes from British War Department documents dating back to Winston Churchill’s first term in office, which were declassified in 2016.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

The Bottom LineLots of explosions but little explosiveness.

Release date: Friday April 19
Cast: Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henrique Zaga, Til Schweiger, Henry Golding
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriter: Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel, Guy Ritchie, based on the book The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops, by Damien Lewis
Rated R,2 hours

The film follows the semi-fictionalized covert special forces mission manned by a maverick crew to neutralize the German U-boats that are pulverizing the Brits in the North Atlantic. Conceived with the approval of Churchill (Rory Kinnear) by a Naval Intelligence division that includes Brigadier Gubbins, code-named “M” (Cary Elwes), and a young Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox), the harbor raid is dubbed “Operation Postmaster.” But the plan is unauthorized, unsanctioned and unofficial, meaning the recruits risk imprisonment if discovered by British forces and death if captured by the Nazis.

That plot implies high-stakes wartime exploits and valor, which is what the nominal action-comedy depicts. But Ritchie’s handle on the material is lackadaisical and low on tension. It doesn’t help that pretty much every Nazi encountered and killed by the Postmaster team — and there are hordes of them — is so bumbling and slow to react that they never pose much of a threat.

The director at times seems to be going for the kind of swaggering irreverence Quentin Tarantino brought to World War II action in Inglourious Basterds. But Ritchie never quite nails the tone, even if his principal actors seem convinced they’re in a rollicking adventure. The movie bounces along briskly enough over a full two hours and is never dull, but it’s never terribly exciting, either, full of wisecracks that rarely crackle.

Chosen to lead the mission is Major Gus March-Phillipps, a high-born eccentric granted early release from a prison sentence. He’s played by Henry Cavill and a spectacular handlebar mustache. Gus insists on choosing his own team, starting with Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), “The Danish Hammer,” known for his skill with a bow and arrow, not to mention knives and, in one frenetic scene, an ax.

Next up come Irish sailor Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a navigational expert; Freddy “The Frogman” Alvarez (Henry Golding), a demolitions specialist whose underwater stamina makes him invaluable in planting explosives to sink ships; and master planner Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer). The latter requires a detour to break him out of a garrison in the Canary Islands, where he’s being held by the Nazis.

The object of the mission is to infiltrate the Spanish port of Fernando Po, off West Africa, destroy the German attack boats and sink the duch*essa, the Italian ship carrying supplies and equipment vital to U-boat operations.

The Postmaster crew have help from Richard Heron (Babs Olusanmokun), a clandestine comms expert who runs a casino in the port as cover. And sharp-shooting actress Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González) is entrusted to seduce the hardass outpost commandant, Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger), keeping him busy at a casino costume party where she performs a vampy version of “Mack the Knife.”

Naturally, complications ensue once Phillipps and company are en route, but no obstacle ever proves especially daunting for the team. This means maneuvers that should be nail-biters look like a piece of cake for the jolly Postmaster crew, and despite a considerable number of explosions and gunfire exchanges, it all seems a bit too easy to ramp up the conflict or build suspense. Chris Benstead’s jazzy score only adds to the lightweight feel of it all.

The cast acquit themselves well enough, especially Ritchson, whose brawny character is happiest when wielding a deadly blade, though I can’t say I bought González as a 1940s femme fatale skilled in subterfuge. The character seems fanciful, even if Marjorie Stewart is one of the handful based on real people. The normally reliable Kinnear is a curiously ineffectual Churchill, especially coming after Gary Oldman and John Lithgow’s artful impersonations in The Darkest Hour and The Crown, respectively.

While Cavill gets top billing and Gus is the central character, he never quite breaks out of the pack, despite supplying the requisite charm and bonhomie. That’s more to do with a script short on character definition than any deficiency in the actor’s work. We learn in the end-credits wrap-up that Phillipps is believed to be the key figure on whom Fleming based James Bond, while M is a more obvious inspiration for the series’ Secret Intelligence Service chief who goes by the same initial.

Shot in Turkey, the movie looks fine if not particularly distinguished, with little in the way of period detail and costumes that don’t always scream 1940s. It’s moderately entertaining because there’s a fascinating historical footnote at the root of it, but the execution doesn’t maximize the story’s potential. It’s almost as if Ritchie fancied the title of Lewis’ book (“Ooh, posh and rambunctious at the same time, that’s my brand!”) but took only a halfhearted stab at bending the material to fit his style.

Full credits

Production companies: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Toff Guy
Distribution: Lionsgate
Cast: Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henrique Zaga, Til Schweiger, Henry Golding, Cary Elwes, Freddy Fox, Rory Kinnear, Danny Sapani
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriter: Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel, Guy Ritchie, based on the book The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops, by Damien Lewis
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Chad Oman, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg
Executive producers: Olga Filipuk, Scott LaStaiti, Teddy Schwarzman, Michael Heimler, Jill Silfen, Llewellyn Radley, Jomana Al Rashid, Mohammed Al Turki, Shivani Pandya Malhotra, Damien Lewis, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Christopher Woodrow, K. Blaine Johnston, Jason Cloth, David Caplan
Director of photography: Ed Wild
Production designer: Martyn John
Costume designer: LouLou Bontemps
Music: Chris Benstead
Editor: James Herbert
Casting: Dan Hubbard
Rated R,2 hours

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‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Review: Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson in Guy Ritchie’s Slapdash Tale of WWII Derring-Do (2024)
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