‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Review: Henry Cavill Leads a Pack of Inglorious Rogues in Guy Ritchie’s Spirited WWII Coup

In “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorizes an illicit mission to undermine Hitler’s fleet of German U-boats during World War II. The plan calls for renegades with little respect for the rules, led by a cocky ex-criminal named Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill), who’s released from prison and called into a top-secret briefing. Oblivious to etiquette, Gus helps himself to a tall glass of Scotch whisky, steals an entire box of cigars and struts over to the desk where a priggish-looking officer sits. Gus swipes his lighter, making a fool of the uptight chap, who identifies himself as “Fleming, Ian Fleming.”

It doesn’t take an intelligence expert to put two and two together: Gus March-Phillipps would later serve as a prototype for Fleming’s James Bond character. Since “No Time to Die,” there’s been much talk about who might fill Daniel Craig’s shoes, but less speculation concerning which directors might handle the project. “Ministry” marks Guy Ritchie’s best attempt at one-upping a franchise in need of a reboot, except that here, he looks to history (rather than Fleming’s oeuvre) for inspiration, adapting the eponymous book by Damien Lewis, whose subtitle says it all: “How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops.”

More from Variety

The mission, dubbed “Operation Postmaster,” was hatched by a secret service officer the film not-so-subtly dubs “M” (Cary Elwes, looking debonair), who warns Churchill (Rory Kinnear), “If we’re discovered, Parliament will remove you from office.” Churchill gives him the go-ahead anyway, and Gus sets off with three fellow hooligans: explosives expert Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding), ship’s captain Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and remorseless killing machine Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), a bear-sized Swede who looks like he could eat the Rock for breakfast.

Gus insists on enlisting one more teammate, Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), who’s being detained and tortured by Nazis in a high-security prison. Liberating Appleyard — who has a car battery clamped to his nipples when they find him — proves no problem for Gus’ men, lending the film its most purely pleasurable action sequence: a bombastic raid on a surprisingly easy-to-infiltrate enemy base, where the gang waltzes in and eviscerates their adversaries. Anders’ weapon of choice is a bow and arrow. He’s strong enough to rip the shafts out of German corpses and recycle them, killing multiple Nazis with the same arrow.

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.

M makes no false claims for what looks like a sacrifice operation. If the men are killed, the British government will deny it. And if they succeed, these heroes shouldn’t expect to be recognized as such. In Ritchie’s telling, the carnage is reward enough. (The details were not declassified until 2016, but now that the facts are known, the script — credited to Ritchie and three others — freely embellishes them.) On the Goodreads site, a four-year-old review correctly predicted, “I think it would make a better movie than a book. Especially the center piece chapters, where the squad manages to steal German ships in a harbor off the coast of Africa.”

That’s a bingo, as this daring scheme drives most of the plot, which involves the five guys sailing down to Fernando Po, a neutral island off the coast of Cameroon, where an Italian cargo ship called the Duchessa d’Aosta is being loaded with Nazi supplies. While Gus’ team travels by sea, two undercover allies — Jewish Mata Hari type Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González) and well-connected black marketeer Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) — take the train. The plan is to meet up on the island, blow up the Duchessa and screw up the Nazis’ ability to reload their U-boats, which controlled the Atlantic and prevented Americans from joining the war.

Ritchie’s approach owes more than a little to Quentin Tarantino, whose “Inglourious Basterds” sets the tone for much of the operation. There are smooth-talking Nazi officers whose charm masks their menace and a bombshell vixen expected to outsmart — and potentially seduce — the worst of them, the sadistic yet cunning Heinrich Luhr (Teuton action star Til Schweiger). The movie relies on a terrific ensemble in nearly all its lead roles, apart from Churchill. Sporting a swollen chest and tightly curled handlebar mustache, Cavill brings a charm all but absent from the stiff secret agent he played in “Argylle,” while Ritchson — between his homoerotic flirting and homicidal flair — seems destined to be the fan favorite.

These guys are so good at what they do, Ritchie fails to muster the expected tension. Instead of suspense, audiences feel a sense of delight in watching them succeed, no matter the setback. Discovering at the last minute that it can’t sink the Duchessa, the team scrambles to come up with an alternative way to deprive the Germans of its cargo. The solution feels not unlike what James Bond might do, disobeying orders to attempt something considerably more dangerous — for the men and for international diplomacy, since the whole idea was to do something Churchill could plausibly deny.

If anything, this dimension of the plot seems the least developed, seeing as how audiences have grown desensitized to rogue agents disregarding the formalities (and laws) of war. It doesn’t entirely track that such a mission would be frowned upon back home, though it does make things slightly more exciting for Gus and his cohorts, since the British Navy can’t come to their aid — and in fact, is standing by to arrest and court-martial them, should the plan go pear-shaped. While cartoonish at times, the behavior on offer here is a long way from the PG-13 exploits of Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy, with his fitted tuxedo and fussy cocktail preferences. Leave it to Ritchie to stir things up.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.