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Film Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Film Reviews

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Director: Guy Ritchie 

Black Bear Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films
In Theaters 04.19

There’s nothing like watching a great filmmaker at the top of his game, and to experience Guy Ritchie’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is truly nothing like watching a great filmmaker at the top of his game. 

In 1942, with the United States yet to enter the war, Hitler is tightening his grip on Western Europe, Blwith German U-boats controlling the waters. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear, Men, Skyfall) turns to Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) of the Special Operations Executive to come up with a cunning, covert and off-the-books solution to the problem. Enter Major Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel, The Witcher), a macho and unorthodox soldier who is tasked with forming an elite team of ne’er-do-wells.There’s Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchison, Reacher), a brawny Danish one man army, master planner Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer, I Am Number Four), undercover femme fatale Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González, Ambulance), explosives expert Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians, Snake Eyes) and token Irishman Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, After). The mission: go deep behind enemy lines to the island of Fernando Po off the coast of West Africa, and secure safe passage through the Atlantic for the Allies by stopping the fleet of German and Italian ships in the harbor by any means necessary.

This fact-based story was bound to heavily fictionalization by Hollywood, though it most certainly didn’t need to be Ritchie and blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckhiemer’s half-baked attempt to make their own version of Inglorious Basterds. Sadly, from the moment that we hear the first notes of a score credited to Christopher Benstead, yet so shamelessly imitating the great Ennio Morticonne that it’s both infuriating and laughable, it’s abundantly clear that riding on Quentin Tarantino’s coattails is the order of the day. We even get one of Tarantino’s cast members, Til Schweiger, as the Nazi villain Heinrich Luhr, doing a pale imitation of Christoph Waltz, and the Marjorie Stewart character is played as the vengeful daughter of Jewish parents killed in the early days of the war, hell bent on getting some payback even if it means putting out fires with gasoline. 

The fact that The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare isn’t anywhere near as graphically violent as its cinematic older brother will be come as an annoyance to some and a relief to others, and it’s at its best when it’s resisting the urge to go full Tarantino and staying more in the vein of The Guns of Navarone mixed with one of Ritchie’s caper movies, albeit minus the usual sense of style. The problem is that Ritchie is intent on trying to sell us on the idea that this is a down and dirty, unsanctioned and ruthless Inglourious Basterds-style mission when it wasn’t one in real life and never plays convincingly as one on film. The messy screenplay, credited to four writers (including Ritchie) is chock full of groan-inducing one liners (“if this doesn’t work, we’ll all be eating little pink sausages and wearing nothing but Lederhosen”) and Luhr’s witticism of calling his Italian cohort “Mr. Spaghetti Pizza” is surpassed only when trading supposedly clever riddles with Stewart, including such brain busters as “I am your brother, but you are not my brother: who are you?” The final section of the film has just enough life in it to remind us what might have been if this story wound up in more inspired and enthusiastic hands, and it borders on mildly entertaining.

Cavill is a serviceable if somewhat bland leading man, and the fact that he isn’t quite able to anchor the film is more on Ritchie’s head for failing to create a distinguishable character than it is on the actor himself. Kinnear’s Churchill looks like he’s either wearing a Halloween mask or having a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting, and González feels more than a little miscast as a German Jew. The only performances that ignited my interest came from Danny Sapani as Kambili Kalu, an African Prince who assists the team in their efforts, and Golding, who is given nothing to do, yet at least jolted me awake every time he appeared on screen by making me feel outraged at the thought that this is the best that Hollywood has to offer such a charismatic actor these days. 

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare isn’t even the second worst movie that Ritchie has made in the past decade, though my praise doesn’t go much further. It’s a sporadically watchable yet remarkably lazy film that feels pieced together from countless vastly superior works. If Ritchie really wants to follow in the footsteps of Tarantino, I’d suggest making one more film and then retiring, though I don’t mind if he wants to skip the first part. –Patrick Gibbs

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