‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Review: Guy Ritchie’s Cheeky WWII Caper Is His Best Movie Since ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’

Cinematic universes may be on the decline, but Guy Ritchie has just stumbled upon the potential for a fun one with his frequently amusing “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” a light and sloppy World War II caper that reimagines Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) as Nick Fury, and a series of rakish, Nazi-killing brutes as his own personal Avengers.

Men on a mission films like “The Guns of the Navarone” might seem to be the more obvious points of reference here, but by the time Churchill is spitting orders at Ian Fleming (“Slow Horses” shitheel Freddie Fox), assigning real-life actress/spy Marjorie Stewart to some “Casablanca” cosplay with a sadistic Nazi commander, and waiting by the phone to hear if his top-secret wrecking crew has managed to sink the German ships that supply Hitler’s fleet of U-boats, saving the world merely seems like the set-up for the bigger and better sequel that feels like it should’ve been teased mid-way through the end credits. Indeed, “The Ministry” will leave audiences wanting more in every sense: While this is probably Ritchie’s most satisfying movie since “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” its shortcomings underline the stylistic flair the “Snatch” director has been forced to forfeit in order to become a prolific journeyman capable of churning out another cost-effective action movie for the Lionsgates and STX Entertainments of the world every nine months.

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“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” might boast that it’s based on the true story of Operation Postmaster, the details of which were only declassified in 2016 (at which point they were immediately made into fodder for the lurid Damien Lewis book on which this movie is based, “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII”), but aside from the fact that some of its characters are historical figures, and that World War II is a thing that actually happened, Ritchie’s film plays so fast and loose with the facts that it makes “Inglourious Basterds” feel like a Ken Burns documentary by comparison.

It may not outdo Tarantino’s masterpiece in any other department, but that certainly isn’t for lack of trying. From the opening notes of Christopher Benstead’s jangly, Jacques Loussier-inspired score, it’s clear that Ritchie is gunning for that same kind of grindhouse-adjacent pastiche, and “The Ministry” is at its best when it embraces the cigar-chomping ultra-violence that “Basterds” elevated into high art.

That starts with the movie’s charisma bomb of a prologue, in which commando Gus March-Phillipps (a burly and bearded Henry Cavill, aces as the the most debonair savage in Britain) and his absolute unit of a wingman Anders Lassen (“Reacher” star Alan Richson, making a serious bid for the Redbox hall of fame) pose as a pair of Swedish fishermen as a sniveling Nazi commander boards their boat on the open seas. Our heroes are not scared. In fact, these devil-may-care squaddies seem to laugh at the face of death (and maybe flirt with each other at the same time?), toying with the Nazis like a pair of overgrown little boys playing with their food.

Maybe it’s because they’re both at peace with the fact that they’ll die for their country before the war is over, or maybe it’s just because they’re trying to stall until their pyromaniac accomplice Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding) has managed to swim over to the Nazi destroyer and plant the world’s largest bomb to the bottom of its hull. The explosion is even bigger than March-Phillips and Lassen expected, but they’re not in the kind of movie where the good guys ever flinch. They’re in the kind of movie where the good guys — always humorous but seldom funny — shrug at the mass graves they’ve just created and call each other “old chap” as beads of fresh Nazi blood glisten across their chests in lieu of their own sweat. “Don’t forget to have fun,” Cavill will later grin to his boys before they rescue British operative Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer) from the Nazi outpost where he’s being held prisoner with his bloody nipples tied to a car battery. Spoiler alert: They definitely remember to have fun.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, as Churchill will eventually dub this rogues’ gallery of operatives in the big “I’m putting together a team” moment he gets in the movie’s final scene, is sailing its way to the neutral Spanish island of Fernando Po, which is off the coast of West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. And the Germans aren’t their only threat; the Ministry’s extralegal mission is so classified that Churchill himself would have to disavow any involvement in the event that March-Phillipps were caught, which means that even the British Navy might blow our heroes out of the water as they fight to help win the war. What a sticky wicket!

The Ministry’s only advantage, aside from their general air of indestructibility, is a pair of undercover agents who have arrived on Fernando Po in advance in order to provide intel and distract Hitler’s local command. One is the aforementioned Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González, doing her best Diane Kruger impression as a whip-smart Nazi honey trap), and the other is her crafty handler Mr. Heron (Paul Atreides stabbing victim Babs Olusanmokun, as memorable and striking here as he was in “Dune”). These two characters are effectively in a separate movie on shore, one that might be easier to enjoy for its sunny Guinean splendor if not for its middling chat — the screenplay is credited to Arash Amel, Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy, and Ritchie himself — and the fact that it effectively leaves the boys on the boat adrift in their own plot.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is all swagger and no style, but the Appleyard rescue that caps off the first act delivers enough ultra-violent preposterousness to get the job done on attitude alone, and to suggest what this movie could have been had Richie been afforded a budget half as muscular as his cast. Cavill is having a blast as a kleptomaniac killing machine who doesn’t think twice about strolling into a Nazi bunker (and then stealing some Nazi clothes for good measure), and Ritchson — playing the most surgical archer this side of Legolas — is almost indescribably charming as the sweetest and most violent human being you’ve ever seen. His performance is like watching a puppy carve a Nazi’s heart out of his body and then bring it to you as a present.

That doesn’t leave Hero Fiennes Tiffin with much to do as the pencil-mustached Henry Hayes, but not every member of the ensemble is going to be so lucky in a period action movie that only has enough money for two real setpieces. At least this one is staged in broad daylight, as Lassen is too bloodthirsty to wait until nightfall. Unfortunately, his impatience doesn’t stop the Ministry from striking under cover of darkness during the climactic attack on the Nazi supply boats, and the entire third act is so underlit that it becomes numbingly hard to tell where we are or what our heroes are doing — a maddening result at the end of a movie that has spent so much time outlining its mission. As much as I’d love to see these characters in another film, I’d also love to have seen more of them in this one. Oh, and a quick general note to action directors everywhere: Silencers are great for stealth kills, but they really suck the fun out of a full-blown siege.

Be that as it may, Ritchie pumps this story full of enough cheeky rodomontade that it’s able to stay afloat on the strength of its own meat-headed bluster, and eventually sail back to England on the residual breeze of the better movie it could have been. But “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is fun, and that’s enough to make you wish that Richie’s next mid-budget action movie — which has already wrapped filming, and will find him reuniting with Cavill and González once again — allowed him to build on the success of this one instead of forcing him to start over from scratch.

Grade: C+

Lionsgate will release “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in theaters on Friday, April 19.

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