‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ review: Guy Ritchie returns with pulpy WWII action

Guy Ritchie making a World War II movie is pretty much what you’d expect of Guy Ritchie making a World War II movie. Cast aside is the standard stern drama or rugged realism that’s standard for “historical” war films. In its place is a giddy celebration of violent action sequences, macho determination, and flourishes of pop-flavored sex appeal. Even the cheeky title feels so in the vein of Ritchie’s irreverently raucous yet deeply English early action-comedies, that it plays like a bit of a self-aware gag on its own. Like who else would direct a movie called The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare?

Look no further than the poster that boasts men’s men — with superhero proportions and fabulous facial hair — alongside a barrage of flashy weaponry, and a hot dame sporting victory curls, her bold red lip pointed at the barrels of a pair of pistols. Where Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds drew inspiration from exploitation movies, Ritchie seems to be pulling his from the covers of pulp novels, where men were strapping and brave and women were full of curves and fatal instincts. 


The result is a movie that bursts with sensational slaughter scenes, chaotic charisma, and charged suspense. Still, Ritchie’s strategizing is far from flawless.

What’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare about? 

Henry Cavill, Alan Ritchson, Henry Golding, Alex Pettyfer, and Hero Fiennes Tiffin in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

Credit: Dan Smith for Lionsgate

Inspired by war journalist Damien Lewis’ book Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII, Ritchie’s latest film unfurls a stranger-than-fiction tale of sexy spies, tough guys, and enthusiastic Nazi-killers. Whereas his last war movie, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, was a somber tale of soldiers and their unjustly discarded allies, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare looks at its true story of World War II history through a lens that’s spirited and sleek. It brandishes snappy dialogue, violence by everything from fists to grenades to arrows, and even a sultry lounge-singing musical number of “Mack The Knife,” — notably a song about a blade-wielding London gangster, who sounds like he’d be well-suited to Ritchie’s cinematic undergrounds.

Adapted by Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Arash Amel, and Eric Johnson, the movie plays like the United Kingdom’s answer to Suicide Squad. In 1940, England is under siege as Adolf Hitler’s German U-boats cut the supply lines in the Atlantic Ocean. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Men‘s Rory Kinnear in respectful grumble mode) is under pressure from his cabinet to surrender to the Nazis. Instead, he concocts a covert mission, bringing in a rogues gallery of eccentric rebels to blow up the German U-boats’ supply ships, forcing Jerry into retreat.

Henry Cavill as Gus March-Phillipps in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

Credit: Dan Smith for Lionsgate

A broad-shouldered and gloriously mustachioed Henry Cavill leads this motley crew of muscly misfits, playing Gus March-Phillipps, a British soldier currently imprisoned for insubordination — though you wouldn’t know it from his swagger. With a crooked grin, Cavill struts into the war room with the bravado he brought to Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with a spiciness that’s more Cavill in Mission: Impossible: Fallout, when he thrilled audiences by cocking his biceps as if they were actual guns. The result is a WWII soldier who doesn’t just shoot down Nazis, but does so with his tongue swinging out and wild as if he were auditioning for KISS. And yeah, that’s exactly as fun as it sounds. And while March-Phillipps’ real-life exploits are believed to be Ian Fleming’s basis for James Bond, this is not a one-man show.

Rounding out his rowdy crew are Alex Pettyfer as steely (read: bit boring) British strategist Geoffrey Appleyard, Hero Fiennes Tiffin as vengeance-seeking Irish sailor, Henry Golding (also sporting fantastically debonair facial hair) as explosion-setting frogman Freddy Alvarez, and Fast Xs Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen, a Swedish soldier with a flare for showmanship when it comes to making Nazis uncomfortable or flat-out slaughtering them with whatever weapon is handy. While this crew sails to West Africa for an explosive rendezvous, on the ground in their target port are undercover spies Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) and Marjorie Stewart (Baby Driver‘s Eiza González), the latter of whom is an actress working the honeypot angle with top Nazi brass Heinrich Luhr (Inglorious Basterds‘ Til Schweiger). 

Alan Ritchson slyly steals this movie from Henry Cavill.

Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

Credit: Dan Smith for Lionsgate

Make no mistake. Cavill is a blast here. Freed from the demanded stiffness of heroes like the DCEU’s Superman and The Witcher‘s Geralt, he clearly relishes the devil-may-care attitude of the ungentlemanly spy, exuding a mischievous allure. Ritchson, who’ve played his fair share of steely toughs in Fast X and Reacher, likewise lets loose, boasting an effervescence that’s unexpected considering his mountainous frame. Indeed, he’s even burlier than the former superhero star. The sheer beefiness of the pair make the well-fit Golding and Tiffin seem like Victorian wastrels by comparison. All together, they have a kinetic energy that’s intoxicating, and fuels scenes of strategizing, spying, and onslaught alike. 

While Cavill’s is the meatier role — more scenes, a budding romance, and scads of zippy one-liners — Ritchson’s mix of silly Swedish meatball and jolly killing machine is so unexpected that it’s mesmerizingly madcap. You can’t guess what Lasse will do next, so even if he’s in the background of a scene, your eyes may drift away from Cavill — and his sublime mustache and mugging — to Ritchson. Though a supporting role, Lasse reveals this brawny actor’s terrific comedy chops, which has me hoping for a Ritchie reteam or Ritchson taking a cue from former pro-wrestler John Cena and diving into comedies. With his debonair and guileless yet goofy air, he’d be a secret weapon in a raunchy romp. 

Guy Ritchie pulls his punches in bizarre places. 

Henry Golding as Freddy Alvarez in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

Credit: Dan Smith for Lionsgate

While there is plenty of Nazi killing in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, it can feel bizarrely tame when compared to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which also focused on a quirky crew hell-bent on Nazi annihilation. Hell, with German movie star Sweiger in both films, it’s hard not to think of the former while watching the latter. The issue is not one of bodycount, as Ritchie offers numerous sequences where Nazis are mowed down. It’s more a confoundingly conservative amount of bloodshed. 

Watching the film, I began to wonder if the flashing red lights over a submarine slaughter scene was meant to imply blood without showing it. Perhaps a trick to get around the MPAA and secure a PG-13 rating that would open up the movie’s demographic to teenagers as well? But The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is rated R. So why shy away from blood spray?

Yet even more jarring is how Ritchie folds nudity into the film. When not embedded with March-Phillipps and his sailing crew, the movie follows the unflappable Heron and Marjorie in their undercover mission. Where he is an unflappable source for exposition dumps, she is the chiefly eye candy, sauntering around in slinky, glamorous gowns to distract the movie’s main antagonist. Yet it’s not this female character whose body will be exposed. Instead, in a scene that is troubling not only for its violence but also its abruptness, Ritchie illustrates just how vicious a bastard Schweiger’s Nazi is by displaying the body of his latest victim.

Here, Ritchie makes a spectacle of a nude Black woman, who hangs limp, bloodied, and shackled in a shed. Her face is out of view. She’s not even given a name. Where violence against the Nazis is treated with cinematic fanfare, here the focused violence against this woman is more horrific, revealed in only the silent aftermath. And yet, she is dehumanized by only existing in this movie for this shocking shot. (One might argue introducing Luhr with literal blood on his hands could have gotten the same point across without objectifying a Black body.)

Alex Pettyfer as Geoffrey Appleyard in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

Credit: Dan Smith for Lionsgate

Ritchie struggles with tone throughout the film, perhaps unsure how playful to be in a movie where genocide is inherently a backdrop. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare offers slight perspective by noting several of the titular heroes are specifically joining the fight because Nazis have murdered their loved ones. This brings a very American sense of cinematic justice as the heroes gun down these bigoted villains, while sporting big smiles.

Historical underpinnings aside, Ritchie’s movie wobbles when it leans away from its pulp bravado to more Casablanca moments. Tense conversations over coffee begin stirring but become a slog as Ritchie can’t get a handle on the proper pacing. As such, when the focus shifts from the brawny boatsmen, the movie often sinks a bit — despite the earnest efforts of a snarling Schweiger, a poised Olusanmokun, a gusto-fueled González, and Danny Sapani, who is utterly compelling as a devilishly charming pirate king. 

In the end, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare has its moments, harkening back to the winsome rogues and madcap mayhem of Ritchie’s early gems, like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Overall though, this is a rickety ride, disrupted by dramatic tonal shifts that can make some bits boring, and one scene that is so haunting that it’s hard to swing back into the ferocious fun of this mirthfully menacing ministry. 

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare opens in theaters April 19.

Source link


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button