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Guy Ritchie’s ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ is bro-historic fluff

1 month ago 45

(2 stars)

As much as Guy Ritchie’s uber-violent, stakes-free, World War II action comedy caper “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” milks its “based on a true story” bona fides, it’s more akin to the last decade’s glut of slick, cool-guy popcorn pictures (including his own) than any meaningful retelling of real heroism.

Its contemporary ties don’t stop Ritchie (the man who brought us “Sherlock Holmes,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Gentlemen”) from aping famous bits from much better, more serious classic war films. Like the sequence on a fishing trawler straight out of “The Guns of Navarone” that opens this liberally fictionalized account of a covert 1942 mission. Dubbed Operation Postmaster, its goal was to take down a German supply ship full of U-boat carbon dioxide filters, which would factor into a crucial turning point in the war.

To turbocharge the bro-historic intrigue and get the astronomical body count going in this shoot-’em-up grand theft aquatic, Ritchie must first assemble a ragtag squad of lethal (and lethally photogenic) heroes so rascally you know they’ll get the bloody job done. You see, Hitler is marching across Europe, Britain’s in a bind, and Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear, beneath a mountain of prostheses) is desperate enough to clandestinely okay a deniable, off-the-books mission. Luckily, Brigadier Gubbins (Cary Elwes), head of the secret Special Operations Executive (SEO) org, knows just the rakish rule breaker for the job.

Enter Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill), leader of a team of ruthless killers willing to play dirty to disrupt Nazi business off the African coast. His squad is Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), a Danish hulk with an exaggerated lilt and astounding archery skills; Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding), a frogman with a talent for explosives; Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), a master strategist; and cunning young Irish sailor Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin).

They’re not in it alone. Already in place on the Spanish island of Fernando Po, where the Germans have set up shop in neutral territory, are SOE agent-slash-actress Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González, who holds her own, if not always her British accent), tasked with seducing a sadistic Nazi officer (Til Schweiger), and suave undercover fixer Richard Heron (Babs Olusanmokun), whose popular casino bar serves as such an unsubtle nod to “Casablanca” that a character drops one of Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic quotes while sitting in his cafe.

Off in their own glam spycraft ’n’ subterfuge romp for half the film, they’re two of the more interesting figures in an overstuffed ensemble that includes Eton-educated West African prince Kambili Kalu (an excellent Danny Sapani), who lends his resources “because the Nazis are gauche,” and young wartime secretary Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox), who must have gotten plenty of 007 inspiration from his wartime stint.

Shot on location in Turkey and Britain, the film’s handsome production design is undone by its dull photographic patina. Costume designer Loulou Bontemps’s standout achievement is a stunning replica of Claudette Colbert’s 1934 “Cleopatra” cutaway gown that Stewart wields like a weapon. Christopher Benstead’s score goes from whistling spaghetti Western motifs to jazzy percussives. Yet the plot breezes on with flimsy banter and bloodshed to go along with scant character development.

Adapted from Damien Lewis’s 2014 book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII,” the screenplay by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel and Ritchie is oddly weightless given that its real-life commandos, heralded as precursors to the British Special Air Service (SAS) and modern black ops warfare, died in combat before war’s end.

If you come, come for Cavill sniping Nazis by the hundreds with manic deadpan abandon, and stay for Ritchson looking like he stepped out of a Gold’s Gym to destroy hordes of German hostiles with a bow and arrow. Then dive into the real history of the SOE, whose men and women could fill dozens more fascinating spy films without blunting the edges of history with fizzy bromantic antics.

R. At area theaters. Strong violence throughout and some language. 120 minutes.

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