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REVIEW — “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

Inspired by true events, Guy Ritchie’s inglorious men-on-a-mission action-comedy, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, mixes macho mayhem with plotting that’s both shaky and stirring.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, the semi-fictionalized true story is based on the nonfiction book “How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops” by war specialist Damien Lewis which itself was inspired by British War Department documents that were declassified in 2016.

Featuring yellow, Tarantino-font subtitles, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film tells the story of the first-ever British black ops unit formed under UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) during early-WWII to combat the crafty Nazi U-boats that are sinking British fleets in the North Atlantic. Dubbed “Operation Postmaster,” the mission is to destroy German attack boats stationed in West Africa and sink the Duchessa, an Italian ship full of vital Nazi U-boat supplies and equipment. The plan is devised by Naval Intelligence Brigadier Colin Gubbins (Cary Elwes), code-named “M”, alongside a young Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox). The military official and future-James Bond author Fleming actually participated in the unauthorized, unsanctioned, and unofficial mission.

The eccentric Major Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill) is chosen to lead the motley crew of ungentlemanly, licensed-to-kill scallywags in exchange for early release from prison. Sporting crazy eyes, a wicked grin, and an impressive, non-CGI handlebar mustache, Cavill’s take on the real-life Major is that of a tongue-wagging madman on a killing spree. The real March-Phillips, likely much more controlled, would later serve as a prototype for Fleming’s James Bond character.

Insisting on choosing his own team, March-Phillips recruits underwater demolitions specialist Freddy “The Frogman” Alvarez (Henry Golding), Irish navigational expert Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), and knife-wielding archer Anders “The Danish Hammer” Lassen (Alan Ritchson). The mountain-sized Reacher star is a towering presence with a devilishly playful Eastern European accent that he uses to deliver some of the film’s funniest lines.

On their way to the Spanish port of Fernando Po, the crew detour to break out master planner Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer) a comrade of March-Phillipps who is in a spot of bother as a Nazi prisoner in the Canary Islands. The prison break scene is one of the film’s most action-packed and insane, featuring a ridiculous Nazi kill count.

Imbedded undercover in Africa are communications specialist Mr. Heron (Babs Olusamokun) and seductive actress and sharp-shooter Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González), the film’s most endearing star. While tense and suspenseful, their B-plot to distract Fernando Po’s Nazi commander Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger) involves slow-burning espionage that often stifles any action built by the scenes featuring the Ministry men.

Unfortunately, once the boys on the boat finally arrive at their destination, the action slows to a crawl, albeit for one long scene of ship-stealing, ax-murdering overkill. You see, the Nazis are simply no match for March-Phillips and his skilled scoundrels. The boys easily overtake and execute each enemy soldier they encounter. There is little-to-no resistance, and, therefore, no tension. Their victory is clearly achievable, but takes forever to play out. At one point, the action literally drags as slow as a tugboat. Also, with much of the film’s finale shot at night, the picture is so dim that it is hard to make out and get invested in any of the on-screen mayhem.

While the Ministry’s covert mission changed the course of the war by aiding America’s entry and laid the foundation for the British SAS and modern Black Ops warfare, the semi-fictionalized script by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel, and Ritchie could have presented the culmination of their efforts in a more thrilling way. Ultimately, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare delivers several scenes of bloody fun action, but suffers from shaky execution due to dull plotting and a lack of urgency. 3/5

Rated R with a running time of 2 hours, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare opens in theaters on April 19, 2024.


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