The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is like an origin story for Guy Ritchie’s whole thing

Henry Cavill and the cast of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare stand around looking manly on a boat
Photo: Dan Smith/Lionsgate via Everett Collection

Now available on digital release and 4K, the Henry Cavill movie takes Ritchie’s gentleman thugs back to basics

British movie director Guy Ritchie loves nothing more than the collision of class and thuggery. It’s like catnip to him. In movies like Snatch and 2019’s The Gentlemen, he thrives on putting plummy toffs next to venal crims and seeing what happens — or combining the two. This is the director who turned Sherlock Holmes into a pugilist, after all. His idea of Englishness encompasses the wood-paneled manor and the stinking fish market, but nothing in between. His idea of masculinity is Vinnie Jones, the foul-mouthed, brutal Cockney soccer player, but dressed like a country squire, with a hunting shotgun in the crook of his arm.

Ritchie has actually made all kinds of movies in all kinds of modes, from the rom-com Swept Away to Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake. But he remains defined by the tone he set in his first two films, 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch — laddish crime capers that at the time felt like a Britpop answer to Quentin Tarantino. These movies pinned down a regional genre that Ritchie’s former collaborator Matthew Vaughn later supercharged into something more stylized and ironized, especially in the cartoonish, James Bond-baiting Kingsman series of spy flicks.

Because Ritchie’s early movies loom so large, and because his legacy and Vaughn’s have been so muddled together, it’s natural to expect Ritchie’s World War II film The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare to play in similarly over-the-top fashion, like a mix of Kingsman and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The title and trailer of the movie, which is now available on DVD, 4K UHD, and on demand, seem to suggest that, too.

Henry Cavill holds a coffee cup looking puzzled on a boat in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Photo: Dan Smith/Lionsgate via Everett Collection

But Ritchie isn’t that kind of director anymore, if he ever was. In the last few years, he’s reined in his stylistic flourishes, dialed down his budgets, and settled into a comfortable rhythm as a fast-moving genre workhorse, cranking out well-crafted, efficient, unvarnished films at a pace that should impress even Steven Soderbergh. Ungentlemanly Warfare is one of these: a brisk, no-nonsense wartime adventure as clipped as the posh accent of its star, Henry Cavill. It’s got more in common with the original 1967 version of The Dirty Dozen than with Tarantino’s postmodern take on it.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’s premise is that Winston Churchill himself (Rory Kinnear) commissions a deniable black ops mission to a neutral West African port, with the goal of destroying the supply lines feeding the Nazi U-boats that have a stranglehold on the Atlantic. This actually happened; it was called Operation Postmaster, and Ritchie’s movie is based on Damien Lewis’ nonfiction book about it. Many of the film’s characters, including Cavill’s Captain Gus March-Phillipps, are real people, but the story has been very heavily fictionalized.

In Ritchie’s version, March-Phillipps is an unruly loose cannon who just happens to have the perfect manners of the old Etonian he is. (The real March-Phillipps was supposedly one of Ian Fleming’s models for James Bond; Slow Horses’ Freddie Fox plays Fleming in the movie, in his days as a naval intelligence officer.) March-Phillipps is tasked with putting together a commando team of similarly reckless ne’er-do-wells to carry out Churchill’s plan. He assembles a group whose chiseled good looks and extreme muscle definition are only matched by their impeccable sang-froid.

Alan Ritchson looks large holding a gun and wearing little spectacles in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Photo: Dan Smith/Lionsgate via Everett Collection

In truth, they’re a more forgettable bunch than is ideal for a movie like this, with the exception of ginormous actor Alan Ritchson (Reacher) as Anders Lassen — though he’s memorable for both good and bad reasons. Ritchson’s brutal fight scenes are among the movie’s biggest pleasures, but the film’s biggest shock comes when you realize he’ll be doing that terrible Danish accent for the whole story.

There isn’t much more to relate about this extremely simple film. There’s a sadistic Nazi bad guy played by Til Schweiger. There are a couple of intrepid spies (Eiza González and Babs Olusanmokun) who almost have more to do than the commandos themselves, and definitely have more charisma. Kinnear underplays Churchill, and unfortunately, so does his makeup. Ritchie includes one of those rather sad scenes that attempts to set up a movie franchise you just know will never come to pass.

The dialogue (by Ritchie and three other screenwriters) is lumpy and unconvincing, but that’s not why anyone watches a film like this. It’s a romp, disposable but sturdily made, with satisfyingly blunt action scenes that have been framed by a true master. Lots of things blow up, Ritchson murders many a Nazi, and Cavill sticks his tongue out while firing a machine gun. (Remember when he fired one one-handed while leaning out of a helicopter in Mission: Impossible – Fallout? Has anyone other than Arnie looked better handling a machine gun on screen? I don’t think so.)

Eiza González, in a smart 1940s dress and scarlet lipstick, holds a machine gun in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Photo: Dan Smith/Lionsgate via Everett Collection

Ungentlemanly Warfare is a serviceable action movie, and its plainness is, paradoxically, the most interesting thing about it. At one point, Cavill persuades a local African warlord (Danny Sapani) to join his mission, essentially by pointing out that they both went to Eton. Their connection is laden with social, racial, and colonial baggage, but Ritchie makes nothing more of it than a celebration of this ancient brotherhood of privileged bullies. Old Etonians know when something’s just not cricket, and they’ll bloody well roll their sleeves up and slaughter whoever gets in their way if they need to, won’t they, old chap?

Forgive me; as a Brit who’s spent the last 14 years living under the casually cruel rule of exactly this breed of entitled, stiff-upper-lip, overgrown schoolboy, I can do without it. Ungentlemanly Warfare modernizes and diversifies the archetype’s self-glorifying narrative a bit, but without really examining it. Ritchie seems happy to have found a straightforward, harmonized historical origin point for his manly ideal of well-bred thugs — and never mind all that problematic stuff about Empire.

He can do better. I prefer his current Netflix series The Gentlemen, adapted from his 2019 film, about a young duke who discovers that his inherited estate comes with a profitable marijuana farm attached. That series is just as obsessed with the collision of class and violence; in the first episode, “Refined Aggression,” Giancarlo Esposito delivers a speech — almost a manifesto — that perfectly distills the Ritchie aesthetic. (“People either survive in the jungle or exist in the zoo; few recognize the significance of the paradoxical reconciliation of the two.”) Netflix’s The Gentlemen is mostly played for broad comedy and thrills. But in its modern setting, it finds some interesting, inverted power dynamics among its cast of toffs, gangsters, and ruthless moneymen — and it’s almost satirical in the way it portrays them.

Guy Ritchie knows his patch. In The Gentlemen, he rakes it over thoroughly, turning up new material. In The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, he retreats into its comforting lies to spin another yarn about chaps who are a bit naughty, and jolly good at killing. Both of these projects are entertaining enough while they last, but only one of them bears thinking about afterward.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is now available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms, and on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K SteelBook.

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