Back in 2015, Guy Ritchie brought us The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a globe-trotting spy caper based on the 1960s TV show. The movie stunk. The third act was a hot mess, the chemistry between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer was maddeningly inconsistent, and those were only two of the many talented actors who got pathetically miscast. I might add that the film wasn’t screened for critics and eventually came out to middling reviews. More importantly, the film opened at third place in the box office behind Straight Outta Compton (opening) and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (in its third week). With a worldwide gross of $72.1 million against a reported production budget of $75 million, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was such a catastrophic box office flop that it lost Warner Bros. an estimated $80 million at minimum.

Cut to eight years later and we now have Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, in which director/co-writer Guy Ritchie (alongside co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, both of whom previously collaborated with Ritchie on The Gentlemen and Wrath of Man) presents a modern-day globe-trotting spy caper with no basis in any existing IP. In fact, the redundant subtitle suggests that Ritchie et al. are trying to start their own ongoing “Operation Fortune” franchise. I feel compelled to add that between The Rhythm Section, The 355, The Protege, and The Gray Man (and those are just the ones I can barely remember off the top of my head), recent history has provided no shortage of disgracefully failed attempts at spy thriller franchises in this lane.

Alas, Operation Fortune got stuck with a deeply unfortunate launch window opposite the hotly-anticipated Creed III. As of this typing, the film only has a worldwide gross of only $34 million (And it’s been running in many overseas markets since January!) against a reported production budget of $50 million, so the fate of this movie and any potential sequels is probably sealed already. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad movie, or a movie not worth seeking out. So let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?

Our plot begins with the theft of an asset known only as “The Handle”. The global intelligence community doesn’t seem to have any idea what it is, but they know a wide spectrum of criminals are eager to pay upwards of $10 billion for it. Thus the governments of the world are on the hunt to find out who’s the seller, who’s the buyer, what The Handle is, and what nefarious deeds it could potentially be used for.

Enter Knighton (Eddie Marsan), a politician operating at the highest echelons of the British government. He calls up Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes), an independent contractor who can direct a team to investigate The Handle without getting bogged down by official channels. Nathan’s team is as follows.

  • Orson Fortune is… well, he’s a Jason Statham character, that’s really all you need to know. If you’ve seen one Statham performance, you’ve pretty much seen them all. But then, you don’t go to a Jason Statham movie to watch him act, you go for the great sense of humor and smoldering charisma between kickass action scenes.
  • Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) is the resident expert in tech and surveillance, and she also frequently serves as an undercover agent in the field. In a better world, this would be a star-making turn for Plaza, making full use of her snarky comedic wit and her incredible sex appeal. Damn shame she doesn’t have more in the way of action chops, but the film makes good use of what she has.
  • J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) is, um… well, he’s just kinda there. He’s pretty much just a hired gun to serve as backup for Statham, which is to say he’s just barely competent enough to keep the plot going. With no defining character traits, no iconic moments, and none of his co-stars’ charisma, J.J. is basically just a bland and unmemorable sounding board for Statham. Damn shame.
  • Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett) is an A-list Hollywood celebrity who famously does all his own stunt driving. As a civilian blackmailed into assisting with the operation (Don’t ask, it’s a long story.), Danny is our resident everyman/comic relief to serve as a humorous contrast and expository sounding board for the other characters. It’s a surprisingly multifaceted role, and Hartnett plays him quite well.

Then we have our antagonists.

  • Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant) is a sleazy war profiteer fronting as a billionaire philanthropist, so of course he’s somehow involved in procuring and selling The Handle. I’m genuinely delighted to see Hugh Grant playing more villainous roles in his later years, he consistently mugs for the camera in a way that’s delectably fun to hate.
  • Mike (Peter Ferdinando) is a rival contractor who’s also after The Handle. If his team and Nathan’s are both working for the Brits with no coordination between them, that would be bad enough. But if Mike is working for some other unknown party, that could be even worse.

And that’s basically the end of the list. With the exception of Greg, none of the bad guys in this movie are anything to write home about. I couldn’t even pick out Mike from a lineup of one, and he’s only worth mentioning because of his impact on the plot. Emilia (Lourdes Fabreres) was easily the biggest disappointment — as Greg’s stoic assistant, the character was good and teed up for a huge action set piece that never happened. Damn shame.

In point of fact, the action scenes are sadly unremarkable across the board. It’s always great fun watching Jason Statham beat people up, but the chase scenes and shootouts are subpar and way too brief. Still, the underdeveloped supporting characters and the middling action scenes come with a major benefit: Speed.

From start to finish, this was a movie built for speed. Literally every shot in this movie is packed with some moment of tension, some exposition, some plot reversal, some joke, some stunt, or whatever else have you. This is a film that demands attention through every second, cramming a labyrinthine spy thriller plot into a lean two-hour runtime. There are lapses in logic, sure, but the story is so compelling and fun and fast-paced that I didn’t even care for the plot holes as they flew right past.

To put this another way, one of my crucial go-to tests for any movie is to ask if I would be comfortable stepping away for a bathroom break. Could I theoretically step out of the theater for a minute or two, reasonably confident that I’d miss nothing of importance for the duration? Well, gentle readers, I went through at least half the movie with a full bladder, knowing for a fact that I’d miss something crucial if I lost focus for even five seconds. Consider that a strong endorsement regarding the film’s quality.

The film has its flaws, but I still had a great time with Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. The leading actors (namely Statham, Plaza, Elwes, Grant, and Hartnett) are more than entertaining enough to make up for the lackluster supporting players. The intricate and compelling plot, presented with relentless pacing and whip-smart editing, is more than exciting enough to make up for the underwhelming action scenes.

As the film is already a box office bomb, I’m good with calling this an underrated spy thriller romp. It’s a damn shame we’re likely never getting a sequel, because I’d love to see Statham, Plaza, and Elwes on another international spy caper together. Regardless, I’m happy to give this one a recommendation, most especially when you can watch it on home video or streaming at your own pace.

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