Guy Richie’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare Practices Uncharacteristic Restraint

Movies Reviews Guy Ritchie
Guy Richie’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare Practices Uncharacteristic Restraint

Guy Ritchie has become such a prolific and well-known director that it’s easy to forget that his first few films were released in the aftermath of the Quentin Tarantino explosion of the mid-1990s. In part, this is because Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch don’t actually resemble Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction as closely as any number of more shameless rip-offs from that era, and by the time Ritchie was on the scene, Tarantino himself had moved into the more adult key of Jackie Brown, then the more gleefully rococo Kill Bill, largely abdicating the ensemble-criminal beat. Yet Ritchie’s early comic-gangster films still do feel connected to Tarantino, maybe because they concentrate the attitudes of a few key motifs or scenes – comic violence, irreverent dialogue – into firecracker cartoon versions. They’re almost like watching someone make a Tarantino pastiche based on the excited descriptions of 13-year-olds who snuck only illicit, incomplete peeks in between their Oasis listening parties. It’s surprising, then, the way that Ritchie circles back to knock off Tarantino more directly in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

It’s not surprising that Ritchie would do it – it’s actually a little stranger that later-period Tarantino hasn’t inspired more imitators – but that he makes such a relatively stolid, dad-friendly attempt. At the time of its release, some viewers were puzzled by the degree to which Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds elided its titular band of Nazi-hunting commandos, bringing a few of them to the fore alongside their leader (played by Brad Pitt) but largely focusing on characters who intersect with the Basterds on their missions. Having Guy Ritchie direct a less ambitious version seems like the perfect opportunity to make a movie that’s more directly interested in a bunch of lads with easily identifiable characteristics, perhaps even colorful nicknames, scrapping and killing their way through World War II. This is a man whose mostly stoic, Los Angeles-set heist movie Wrath of Man still includes a bloke named Boy Sweat Dave; surely he could attempt to out-QT in assembling a bunch of disreputable, mostly British soldiers for a proto-black-ops mission to sink a German U-boat. There’s certainly some of that laddish irreverence on hand when the crew must embark on a pre-mission to retrieve Apple (Alex Pettyfer) from German hands.

Yet The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is surprisingly faithful to the sensibility of Basterds (if far less fanciful). Charismatic leader Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill) commands a ragtag-but-not-that-ragtag crew who show no mercy in blasting away their Nazi enemies; most of them aren’t Jewish, but they have similar vendettas against their German oppressors. Instead of scalps, Anderes Lassen (a perpetually blood-spattered Alan Ritchson) purports to collect Nazi hearts, though we only see him extract one. There’s even a side story involving the actress-turned-spy Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González) going undercover, which also features Basterds player Til Schweiger (though he’s playing a faithful German soldier this time, not one who’s swapped sides).

Of course, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is also based on real people and a real mission, so perhaps Stewart first inspired the Basterds actress character played by Diane Kruger. There are other reality-blurring aspects of the new movie, too, like the way one military higher-up is revealed to be, ah, “Fleming. Ian Fleming” (Freddie Fox), the James Bond creator who supposedly patterned his famous character after March-Phillips. Richie has dabbled in Bondisms before, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (with Cavill) and Operation Fortune (without); here, he’s not in such a spoofy mood, instead opting for a stiff-upper-lip deadpan. An early flashback, for example, scrambles chronology only briefly, and with less manic glee than Ritchie’s endlessly rewinding gangster pictures (or even U.N.C.L.E.).

This is all to say that the resulting film is rather less antic than some of Ritchie’s past capers, revealing a slightly tedious awe of Winton Churchill, the Greatest Generation and things of that nature. It’s all a bit respectful, innit? But taken on those terms, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a satisfying men-and-one-insanely-beautiful-woman-on-a-mission movie. Ritchie isn’t really a master of suspense – even in a more stoic context, he’s too easy-breezy for it, unless he’s going full Hard Man style as in Wrath – but he knows how to cut together the business of blasé killing, and the movie’s relative straightforwardness flexes a new muscle for him. It’s a better go at an old-fashioned Hollywood production than his actual blockbusters. (Though I have a soft spot for his misbegotten King Arthur.)

As in Basterds, some of the men ultimately don’t register: Henry Golding’s character is good with explosives, for example, which means we see more of what he makes (lots of kaboom) than what he’s like as a person. But the subplot with Marjorie and club owner Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) working undercover in West Africa introduces some real espionage amidst the efficient mayhem, with González and Olusanmokun providing an impressive amount of glamour, charisma and gravitas in their scenes; a whole movie could be made about their performance of sophistication. Henry Cavill, meanwhile, underplays that Bond connection, more a pleasantly raffish fellow with a taste for finer things (admiring menswear, stealing cigars) than an ice-cold secret agent. He’s simply in a more modest, workmanlike adventure than his eventual spy-novel and big-screen counterpart, and doesn’t seem too fussed about it. That’s business as usual for a slightly stolid but likable movie star. For Ritchie, though, the stolidness is an experiment and, in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare at least, a reasonably effective one.

Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Guy Ritchie, Arash Amel
Starring: Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Babs Olusanmokun, Alan Ritchson, Henry Golding, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Til Schweiger, Cary Elwes
Release Date: April 19, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Decider, GQ, Polygon, Inside Hook, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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