The year is 1941 and Adolf Hitler rules the North Atlantic. Nazi U-boats have disrupted the supply lines of the Allied forces in Europe. The USA won’t send reinforcements for fear of getting sunk by the world’s most advanced submarines. Refugees trying to flee Germany — or anywhere else in Europe, really — don’t have a chance on the open seas. The Third Reich has effectively blockaded all of Europe, and it’s winning them the war.

The solution: Operation Postmaster, a British plot to cut off the supply lines to the U-boats. Conveniently, the U-boats are resupplied by the Italian cargo liner Duchess d’Acosta, so all the Brits have to do is sink that ship and the German Navy is out of commission for a few precious months.

The problem: The Duchess makes berth in neutral territory. Specifically, the ship resupplies off the coast of West Africa, on the Spanish-controlled island of Fernando Po. If the Brits are caught starting anything this huge on Spanish turf, they risk pushing the Spaniards — and thus, all of Europe — over to the Axis. But if the Brits don’t take this shot, they lose the war anyway.

(Side note: At a guess, this British incursion on Spanish soil is likely why Operation Postmaster was kept under heavy, heavy wraps for close to 80 years.)

Thus we have the No. 62 Commandos under the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), who basically invented the modern concept of “black ops”. A mere handful of expendable badasses were sent on what was effectively a suicide mission to sink the Duchess d’Acosta and cripple the U-boat fleet. Getting caught by anyone — even the British Navy — meant getting disavowed and imprisoned or worse.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is what happens when Jerry Bruckheimer decides to produce this concept, and he lets Guy Ritchie direct. In other words, you’ve got a Nazi-killing testosterone-driven over-the-top spectacular to make the Inglourious Basterds look like the Keystone Cops. So let’s meet the cast, shall we?

  • Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill) is the de facto leader of our mission. The real March-Phillips was thought to be a key inspiration for James Bond, which really tells you all you need to know. (And yes, Ian Fleming himself shows up early on, as played by Freddie Fox).
  • Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson) is a bona fide hunter. With his arrows and his blades, he’s faster and stealthier than any man of his extraordinary size should possibly be.
  • Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer) is the brains of the group, an expert tactician who stands up so well under pressure and torture that he may actually be a masochist.
  • Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding) is the resident frogman and explosives expert.
  • Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) is March-Phillips’ protege and a world-class sailor.
  • Mr. Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) isn’t really part of the team per se, but he’s an undercover agent with the British government who’s embedded himself within the black market at Fernando Po. He’s responsible for A) keeping the British government and the commandos up to speed on the situation at port, B) making sure the Duchess is loaded up with enough goods that it’s worth blowing up, and C) keeping the Nazi soldiers too distracted to defend the port.
  • Marjorie Stewart (Eiza Gonzalez) is an actress/singer descended from German Jews on her mother’s side. She’s sent undercover with Heron to assist in seducing anyone with valuable intel, most especially the Nazi chief officer Heinrich Luhr (our de facto Big Bad, played by Til Schweiger). I might add that she’s a deadly sharpshooter in her own right.
  • Kambili Kalu (Danny Sapani) is a British-educated crime lord, the self-proclaimed Prince of Fernando Po. He’s not officially on the project and he’s quite late to the party, but he deserves mention for contributing extra weapons and manpower at a crucial point in the third act.

Elsewhere in the cast, we’ve got Rory Kinnear gamely playing Winston Churchill under heavy makeup, and Cary Elwes playing the head of SOE (who is indeed codenamed “M”).

This is one of those times when the film speaks loudly for itself. Again, this is Jerry Bruckheimer and Guy Ritchie. This is Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson and Cary Elwes. This is a movie about killing Nazis. Subtlety is nowhere to be found here.

The film closes with pictures of the actual real-life heroes involved with Operation Postmaster, and the comparison of those pictures with the likes of Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson tells you everything you need to know. This is a laughably heightened movie about larger-than-life, practically bulletproof characters and there’s no possible way any of this really played out like it does in the movie. But even if this is a heavily fictionalized portrayal, it certainly feels like the actual story should’ve been this big. On paper, those who pulled this off sound exactly like their four-color counterparts on the big screen.

That said, it’s undeniably true that some actors in the cast are better off than others. Cavill and Ritchson are playing well within their comfort zones. Alas, while Pettyfer and Tiffin don’t exactly weigh down the proceedings, they’re both too far out of their weight class. Henry Golding is still void of any screen presence or charisma, but I still prefer him as a mediocre action player instead of a tedious romantic lead. Elwes is doing his old established schtick while Kinnear and Schweiger are hamming it up in their respective roles. Olusanmokun is an underrated delight, and he does a fine job playing arguably the most dynamic role in the cast.

I have so many mixed feelings about Eiza Gonzalez here. Yes, she’s a stone-cold femme fatale who plays her part more than well enough. And yes, I appreciate how rare it is to see a female lead in an action movie taking on the Big Bad instead of a mere side boss. But was Luhr really the main antagonist here?

I know the film keeps framing Luhr as the big bad villain, our main embodiment of the Third Reich. Trouble is, that’s not consistent with his role in the plot. There are cowards in the British Navy (most especially Admiral Pound, played by Simon Paisley Day) who are more effective in blocking the operation. If anything, it’s the Nazi hive mind comprised of nameless faceless goose-steppers acting of their own volition who serve as the primary antagonists, and Luhr does basically nothing to direct them at any time.

On the other hand, Luhr serves a vital role as a hate sink. He and Marjorie don’t do much in the way of anything strictly necessary to advance the plot, but they serve the emotional need of giving us one Nazi whom we come to know and understand as evil and a sympathetic character to kill him off. Mowing down a ton of nameless faceless goons is fun, but mowing down one sadistic power-mad motherfucker is more satisfying.

Put it this way: Getting back to the Inglourious Basterds comparison, try to imagine a cut of that movie without Hans or Shoshana. Without those two characters, Operation Kino would remain exactly the same and the Basterds would still be there to kill Hitler and all his Nazi stooges. The plot would more or less play out the same way… but you’d still notice that something was missing, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, the film more or less continues on one gear — full-throttle over-the-top — right up until the denouement. Only then does it really sink in that for all our heroes have done for their nation and the world, they may never be thanked for it within their lifetimes. The public at large will never know what they did until they’re long dead. Then again, it’s not like any of these characters ever did it for the honors or the gratitude anyway, and there’s honor in that.

Even so, it’s undeniably true that these particular miscreants were more motivated by bloodlust, stubborn pride, and a sick sense of humor, as opposed to any sense of patriotism. Does that really make a difference in the final analysis? The film can’t be arsed to raise the question, so I’ll let you be the judge.

In the final analysis, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is good old-fashioned, brainless, blood-soaked fun, served up with dry British humor. It doesn’t get any more basic than watching larger-than-life badasses mow down hordes of Nazis, and the film delivers on that simple pleasure with bombast. This one really is as simple as watching the trailer, because it’s exactly what it says on the tin.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m really not that hard to please. Just show me Nazis getting turned into red mist and I’m a happy guy. On those grounds, I can happily give this a recommendation.

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