Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Kills Nazis With Serviceable Joy

There are some basic formulas for World War II movies from which we get a new crop of releases every year. Gritty battle epics remind us how terrible combat is. Glossy romances add melodrama to the conflict. Don’t forget the occasional biopic. Then there’s the semi-grindhouse adventure. Guy Ritchie’s “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is a combo of the first and fourth. Its starting point is a true story culled from the book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII” by Damien Lewis. But don’t watch this movie to cheat on any homework assignments. Ritchie is making a silly, exaggerated romp that’s more about his signature visual style. 

It is the early days of the war and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) is facing pressure to appease Hitler. He devises a plan, dubbed Operation Postmaster, to sabotage Nazi U-boats based in West Africa by putting together a secret team of off-the-books agents. The perfect candidate to lead the team is Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill), a total rule-breaker. The others are a muscled Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer) and Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding). They head down the Gulf of Guinea where they will link up with two other essentials, Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) and Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González), a Jew whose family was murdered by the Nazi onslaught in Europe. They need to blow up a supply chain in order to free up the Atlantic so U.S. ships can pass unhindered to aid the British war effort. To do so, they will need to face off against the ruthless Nazi officer Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger).

There’s an old-fashioned spirit to “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” where it feels like a Jack Kirby comic book, or a movie made during the war itself to pump up morale. No doubt instant comparisons will be made with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” though it never reaches that film’s level of violence, satire or historical revisionism. Tarantino is into feverish odes to cinema, punctuated by his love for monologues with bloody action winking at the ‘70s. Ritchie really is making more of a classic macho war movie where heroic, chiseled men with one hot woman punch and outmaneuver some Nazis. His lively visual antics combine with the sort of spirit you get in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The screenplay is certainly better fleshed out than some of Ritchie’s latest capers, such as last year’s baffling “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre.” We know what the mission is, who the villains are and the rest is just sitting back and watching it unfold.

War is serious business but a movie like this isn’t necessarily meant to be a serious experience. Even bits of truth are tossed around like Marvel easter eggs. Churchill’s military intelligence staff happens to feature a young Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox). We learn during the required end credits postscripts that Gus March-Phillips was an inspiration for Fleming’s creation of James Bond. It’s a fascinating anecdote and a film about these personalities closer to the truth would have been intriguing. Instead, we get the kind of scene where Churchill pounds his desk and warns that Britain faces a spawn right out of the “fountain of evil.” An apt description for Hitler, but doubtful that’s how a typical cabinet meeting played out. Henry Cavill and crew have a good time with one-liners, bro insults and cheerful gags. It’s “The Dirty Dozen” polished with Richie’s gloss. Sometimes it loses its flare when shootouts and knifings get derivative. Though, Anders uses archery to take out the fascist scum. It’s more fun to watch Til Schweiger (a veteran of “Inglourious Basterds”) issue malevolent commands. Eiza González gets to croon her own take of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” with femme fatale charm.

Guy Ritchie has been going on quite the release rush recently. He’s been delivering several films a year, some notable like “Wrath of Man” and “The Covenant,” and a Netflix series spun off his 2020 movie “The Gentlemen.” As a director, he either tries new, deeper choices or indulges in stylistic exercise. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” packs some British national pride in WWII nostalgia, but it is best enjoyed as Ritchie having a good time with his camera and a decent cast. There is plenty of blood spewed, yet this movie could have easily been released around the time of “Casablanca” (not to compare the two, of course). It’s the war turned into escapist fantasy, with just enough truth to give it higher meaning. How much you enjoy it depends on how silly of a mood you’re in. For Ritchie, this is more fun target practice in a career on hyper speed.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” releases April 19 in theaters nationwide.