Review: Guy Ritchie Turns a Real-Life WWII Mission Into a Mediocre Actioner in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Based on true events (loosely, I’m guessing) that came to light when files of the British War Department were recently declassified, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare tells the story of the first-ever special forces organization formed by UK Prime Minster Winston Churchill (played here by an unrecognizable Rory Kinnear) during World War II. Played more as an action-comedy than any type of serious wartime thriller, the Guy Ritchie-directed movie (based on the book by Damien Lewis) follows a small, top-secret combat unit consisting of less-than-gentlemanly mavericks who go on an unsanctioned and unconventional mission against a Nazi supply chain port in the Spanish-controlled island of Fernando Po, off the coast of West Africa. (The island was technically neutral ground, meaning a sanctioned mission would have been considered an act of war.)

Some of the actual tactics by Churchill are fairly interesting, in the context of the film. America had not yet entered the war, and killing this supply chain would effectively cripple German U-boats for several months in the North Atlantic, giving American forces an avenue to join the fight. The plan is complicated and audacious and ever-changing (making it all-the-more confusing), but it did lay the groundwork for British special forces and Black Ops warfare in general. But that’s not really the story being told here. Instead, we get mostly nonsense and roguish behavior, which I get is probably the point of the film though it’s not nearly as interesting as what likely happened.

Another interesting aspect of this campaign is that one of the group of military officers plotting with Churchill was a young Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox), who went on to create the James Bond character (there’s even an “M” character, played by Cary Elwes). But he’s not part of the actual mission. Instead, we get genuine war hero Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill), who has to be sprung from prison to lead the unit. He works with Anders Lassen (Reacher’s Alan Ritchson); Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer); Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding); Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González, from Baby Driver); Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin); and Heron (Babs Olusanmokun, Dune: Part One). The group also recruits a group of locals, led by Kambili Kalu (Danny Sapani), to help them destroy the Nazi supply boats. On the opposing side, Nazis(!) are overseen by Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger), who is conveniently effective and ineffective, depending on what the screenplay requires.

A plan is drawn up, revised when the team finds out that the boats they want to sink are fortified, and then carried out, more or less as planned, which doesn’t make for exciting cinema but at least it feels authentic. What doesn’t always feel genuine is the banter, which has most members of the team going through their action paces with a fairly blasé attitude and unearned confidence that literally sucks the potential drama out of most scenes that would benefit from a bit of tension.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is more frustrating than outright bad, but if that’s the best thing I can say about it, I can’t imagine how people less familiar with WWII history are going to feel about this movie. Simultaneously, the film feels overblown and undercooked; Ritchie knows how to direct an action sequence, but he’s still having issues with storytelling and character building; I’m not expecting intricate backstories for each of the dozen-or-so main characters, but something a little more accessible would be nice.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.