Henry Cavill leads the charge in Guy Ritchie’s swaggering Second World War actioner based on a true story

The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Source: Lionsgate

‘The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

Dir: Guy Ritchie. US. 2024. 120mins

“Try to have fun,” Henry Cavill’s swaggering military leader advises his motley band of warriors early on in The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare, a strained Second World War action film whose emphatic glibness quickly wears thin. Director Guy Ritchie brings his irreverent attitude, stylistic elan and fascination with gritty British antiheroes (as seen recently in works like The Gentlemen film and TV series, with which this has no connection) to a true story of a renegade squadron on a dangerous top-secret mission to destroy Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic. But for a film that promises to be a rollicking underdogs-against-the-odds adventure, the plan is not all that outlandish – and the picture’s cheeky humour is never especially witty. 

A smirking, shallow action-comedy - a total mission failure

Opening in the US on April 19 through Lionsgate, Ungentlemanly Warfare faces off a very different war film in Civil War, which opened wide on April 12 and topped the US box office with a $25.7m weekend gross. Cavill, reuniting with Ritchie after The Man From U.N.C.L.E., provides commercial muscle, joined by an ensemble that includes Eiza Gonzalez. UK audiences may be intrigued by this story when the film eventually comes to Prime Video (which has rights for multiple international territories), as it traces the roots of the British Special Air Service — and features James Bond creator Ian Fleming as a supporting character. However,  lukewarm reviews and lack of buzz may end up sinking this operation. 

Cavill plays Gus March-Phillipps, released from prison in the early 1940s in order to spearhead a covert military assignment. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill has appointed him to assemble a crack team to journey to a West African port where the Germans are housing critical supplies for the war effort. Nicknamed Operation Postmaster, the mission requires March-Phillipps, alongside the fearsome soldier Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson) and the seductive undercover agent Marjorie Stewart (Eliza Gonzalez) amongst others, to neutralise the Nazis and their U-boats, ensuring safe passage across the Atlantic for US forces to join the Allied cause.   

As he did with recent features including The Gentlemen and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, Ritchie approaches Ungentlemanly Warfare with a snarky sensibility. Although inspired by Damien Lewis’ 2014 historical novel, which was based on declassified files from the British War Department, the picture is long on Tarantino-esque flamboyance, which lends the proceedings a B-movie unreality that can be intermittently enjoyable. Adding to the fleeting delights is Ritchie’s decision to have March-Phillipps and his band of misfits dispense with dozens of Nazis in the most brutal fashion imaginable. (In particular, Ritchson has a blast brandishing a bow and arrow, which his character uses with lethal precision.) In our modern moment when fascism and white supremacy are alarmingly on the rise, Ungentlemanly Warfare allows the viewer the cathartic release of watching uncomplicatedly evil bad guys being mercilessly killed.

But the heist-film narrative, credited to four writers (including Ritchie), would be immeasurably better if it were attached to memorable characters. For all of Cavill’s cocky charisma, March-Phillipps barely registers as Operation Postmaster’s leader – and his team members fare even worse. Playing the sole woman in this mission, Gonzalez more than holds her own around her male co-stars, but Stewart’s main objective is to charm Nazi commander Heinrich Luhr (a dull Til Schweiger) so that he will be unaware of March-Phillipps’ risky operation. This does not leave Gonzalez much to do other than be alluring, which is diminished by the unscintillating interplay between the two characters. 

Working with editor James Herbert and composer Chris Benstead, Ritchie falls back on action-movie cliches, predictably juxtaposing tense sequences with uptempo jazz music or pop standards. Specific scenes recall Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a superior film about misfits taking on loathsome Nazis. And as for Operation Postmaster’s strategy to take out the U-boats, the plan is both overly intricate and surprisingly pedestrian, with even a late-reel twist proving to be humdrum. 

Because March-Phillipps and his crew quip more than they talk, Ungentlemanly Warfare lacks the stakes that would seem inherent in a mission that –  the audience is constantly reminded – is of such vital importance. (Rory Kinnear plays an anguished, one-note Churchill, his leadership hanging in the balance should this operation fail.) Even the introduction of Fleming (Freddie Fox), who was a naval intelligence officer at that time, feels insubstantial, a cutesy footnote that adds very little. Like so much of Ungentlemanly Warfare, that digression underlines the film’s vain attempt to embody the impudent spirit of this proudly unpolished commando unit. The result is a smirking, shallow action-comedy — a total mission failure. 

Production companies: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Toff Guy Films

International sales: Black Bear, info@blackbearpictures.com 

Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Guy Ritchie, Chad Oman, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg 

Screenplay: Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and Arash Amel and Guy Ritchie, based on the book The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze And Gave Birth To Modern Black Ops by Damien Lewis

Cinematography: Ed Wild

Production design: Martyn John

Editing: James Herbert

Music: Chris Benstead 

Main cast: Henry Cavill, Eiza Gonzalez, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henrique Zaga, Til Schweiger, Henry Golding, Cary Elwes