It’s late 1941, and Britain stands alone against the Nazi war machine in Europe. German U-boats keep American ships from reaching the United Kingdom. When the Special Operations Executive (the British equivalent of the OSS) learns that the U-boats are being resupplied on a remote island off the coast of Africa, and one ship is carrying all of the needed supplies, Churchill dispatches a top-secret commando team of military mavericks to conduct “ungentlemanly warfare” and destroy the ship. 

The catch: it’s seen as an illegal operation by most of the British military and since the island is the territory of fascist-but-neutral Spain, it risks bringing a new enemy against the U.K.

That’s the plot for “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” — the latest movie to hit theatres from director Guy Ritchie. It’s a classic “men on a mission” World War II movie that’s been done so well in films like “The Guns of Navarone” (which shares a lot of similar beats to this movie), “The Dirty Dozen,” “Inglourious Basterds” and many more. It’s a setup so unique it would feel too convenient if it wasn’t based on a true story. 

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” out today, tells the true story of Operation Postmaster, one of the first major missions conducted by the British commandos in World War II. Specifically, it’s the Small Scale Raiding Force or No. 62 Commando, led by Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill). Adapted from historian Damien Lewis’ book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII,” it follows the planning and execution of Operation Postmaster and the real-life special operations legends involved in it. If the mission on the island of Fernando Po did go wrong, the United Kingdom would face a new enemy and Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear, with an inconsistent take on the prime minister’s distinctive voice) could be deposed by others in Parliament. 

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The movie is Guy Ritchie’s turn to take a stab at the “men on a mission” genre. Instead of his usual fast-paced British crime romps such as “Snatch” and “The Gentlemen” or big-budget intellectual property (IP) adaptations, Ritchie is in new territory: a mostly true WWII story. And it focuses on several commandos who would go on to be legends in special operations, from March-Phillips to the Danish archer Anders Lassen (played here by Alan Ritchson of “Reacher” fame, now sporting glasses as small as he is big). 

For the most part, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” sticks to the broad strokes of history and Lewis’ writing. Where it embellishes, it’s in favor of more action and Ritchie’s by-now trademark style and charm. And Ritchie is definitely having fun here. The film moves at a comfortable pace, allowing moments for quips and style in between brutally ventilating Nazis in various ways. It’s more his usual style than last year’s dour and ultimately lackluster Afghan translator film “The Covenant.” 

Despite being advertised as all “mad,” the members of the SSRF are mostly straightforward. As March-Phillips, the leader and nominal protagonist of the film, Cavill is woefully lacking. In fairness, the film doesn’t give him much to do — particularly with his colleague Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer) outright identified as the actual planner — but beyond the sporadic and uneven moments of kleptomania, March-Phillips is bland. More fun is had with the supporting cast. 

Lewis’s book used Lassen as the throughline, with his involvement in various commando raids such as Postmaster as a way to chart the early history of special operations. As played by Ritchson, Lassen has the charm and menace Cavill’s March-Phillips lacks, combined with gleeful violence that veers on comical, but entertaining. Others, such as Appleyard or Alvarez (Henry Golding) are slightly more one-note, but they play their parts well. 

Outside of Ritchson’s Lassen, the other big highlight is the pair of Marjorie Stewart (Eiza Gonzalez) and Herron (Babs Olusanmokun), two SOE operatives on Fernando Po who have to lay on the charm and dodge Nazis and Francoists for the mission to succeed. Their scenes are some of the most engaging, with real spycraft and subterfuge. Ritchie’s background in caper films comes to light here, given these scenes have much more energy than that of the commandos. 

While Lewis’s book was more expansive on the origins of the commandos, Operation Postmaster, and the formation of groups such as the Special Air Service, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is focused solely on Postmaster, from March-Phillips’ recruitment to the conclusion of the operation. It’s a shame, as the film doesn’t do enough to say what makes these special operatives so special. Even the reason why March-Phillips is in prison when he is recruited goes unexplained, nor why he is seen as unconventional enough for such an unconventional mission. 

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“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”’s biggest problem is its lack of any real tension. Yes, obviously the very existence of this film suggests they’ll pull it off, but the heroes of the story have it pretty easy. The genre Ritchie is riffing on relies on the tension of arduous preparation, often gone awry with the commandos having to find a solution and fast. Barring an easily solved moment, this film is very straightforward. For March-Phillips and the rest of the SSRF, it’s smooth sailing, quite literally at times. As a result, the film ends up fun but not that thrilling, for the most part. 

There are exceptions. Some of the strongest moments in the film are centered around Herron and Stewart on Fernando Po, in part because they’re the ones facing the real danger of discovery while March-Phillips and the SSRF are busy sailing toward their destination. Even in the final set piece, there’s not much sense of danger, though that’s made up for by the sight of the cast dispatching Nazis in various ways. Essentially, for anyone who thought “Inglourious Basterds” did not have enough of the titular team killing Nazis as per its mission, this film will not suffer the same criticism.

As a proper history of the start of special operations, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” doesn’t quite deliver. As an adventure romp, it’s slightly too breezy to have many thrills. But there’s a charm and sense of fun with the film that’s not hard to enjoy. And when the Nazis are the bad guys and they are compromised to a permanent end in a variety of ways, that can make for delightful if light entertainment.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is now in theaters. 

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