Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Chad Oman, Ivan Atkinson and John Friedberg   Director: Guy Ritchie   Screenplay: Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Arash Amel and Guy Ritchie   Cast: Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henrique Zaga, Til Schweiger, Henry Golding, Cary Elwes, Freddy Fox, Rory Kinnear, Danny Sapani, Tim Seyfi, Henrique Zaga, Alessandro Babalola, Simon Paisley Day and Olaf Kayhan   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C-

It’s clear what Guy Richie’s after in his latest, a World War II action comedy inspired by Damien Lewis’ 2014 book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII” (now recast as “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops”).  His intent was to construct an exciting, jokey take loosely based on Operation Postmaster, a mission carried out in January, 1942 under the aegis of the espionage/sabotage unit SOE (Special Operations Executive); its purpose was to steal several German and Italian boats from the harbor at Fernando Po, a neutral Spanish island off the west coast of Africa, and take them to Lagos.  The operation was a success.

Richie and his screenwriters have reconstructed the event as a desperate, last-ditch effort devised by Winston Churchill and his cohorts to overcome defeatism within the British government and cripple German submarine warfare in the Atlantic, thus opening the way for the arrival of American forces by sea.  They’ve also transformed a substantial commando operation by disciplined if intrepid men into an assault by a ragtag group of cheeky misfits, and provided them with swarms of Nazis to contend with, both at sea and at the port of Santa Isabel.  To say that the story has been absurdly embellished for cinematic effect would still be a wild understatement.

In this telling, Churchill (Rory Kinnear, doing one of the least convincing recent impressions of the man), deciding that if the Germans won’t play by the rules, neither will he, and faced with recommendations to negotiate with Hitler from within the government, instructs the head of the SOE, Brigadier Colin Gubbins or “M” (Cary Elwes, doing stiff-upper-lip shtick with rolling eyes added) to assemble a team for Operation Postmaster, which in this version aims to destroy the Italian vessel Duchessa d’Aosta at Santa Isabel because the ship is integral to supplying essential equipment to the German U-boat fleet.  Gubbins’ aide is none other than Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox)—and yes, he supposedly got the idea for James Bond from his stint with the SOE, and particularly from the man who led Operation Postmaster.

That was Major Gus March-Phillipps, here portrayed by Henry Cavill, boasting a prodigious beard, a handlebar moustache, and a perpetual smirk, as a rule-breaking fellow who has to be released from prison to be offered the mission.  Stocking up without asking on liquor and cigars from M’s stash (and pilfering Fleming’s cigarette lighter and one of M’s coats), he assembles his team:  Irish sailor Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an expert navigator; Freddy “The Frogman” Alvarez (Henry Golding), a diver and explosives specialist; and Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), known as “The Danish Hammer,” a burly bruiser skilled in the use of bow and arrow, not to mention everything else. The last member is Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), a genius strategist who’s unfortunately been captured by the Germans and is being tortured by them in a camp on the Canary Islands.  In the first of the movie’s major set-pieces—apart from an encounter with a German boarding party that the four dispatch with extreme prejudice (along with their ship)—they easily wipe out the camp and its scores of defenders to free him.     

The now-completed crew will be aided by some allies on the island.  One is Richard Heron (Babs Olusanmokun), an undercover agent who runs a casino in the port.  He’s brought in Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González), a gorgeous actress.  Together they’re tasked with keeping the German contingent headed by greedy, preening Commandant Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger) busy by throwing parties for officers and enlisted men while the team—helped by the local, Eton-educated Prince (Danny Sapani) and his men—fulfill the mission.  Naturally there are last-minute obstacles—especially when Luhr identifies Stewart as a Jew when she uses a Yiddish phrase in a seductive performance of “Mack the Knife” meant to keep him transfixed (of course no loyal Nazi would have allowed that song to be sung in his presence in 1942, but let’s not nit-pick) and the crew discovers that the ship targeted for destruction has been reinforced to make it unsinkable, requiring Appleyard to come up with a new plan to steal it instead.

That plan works, of course, as the team once again mows down scores of Germans with ludicrous ease.  That’s one of the major flaws in the movie: it’s meant to be tense, but it’s impossible to generate any suspense when the Brits are portrayed as invincible killing machines quipping their way through the action, with the Nazis as their inept targets.  There’s no more sense of danger here than in any episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” and fewer laughs as well; and when we see a nasty German commander, he’s either a sneering dolt (like the chief of the boarding crew played at the start by Tim Seyfi) or a dill-witted martinet (like the officer on a train, played by Olaf Kayhan, who fails to notice Heron and Stewart stealing some top-secret information).  Even Schweiger’s Luhr, who, one assumes, is meant to mimic the magnetic villainy Christoph Waltz brought to the Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (a far superior film, and Richie’s obvious model) is, if not quite as stupid as Colonel Wilhelm Klink, not much brighter, as his demise proves.

Luhr also contributes to the drabness of the humor in this “Ministry”—at one point he must actually deliver a line about “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”—an allusion to a great film that, in this context, makes one cringe.  But it afflicts all five supposedly heroic members of the mission, from Cavill through Pettyfer, who seem to be constantly winking at the camera as they mouth a stream of leaden macho banter while monotonously dispatching another squadron of Germans.  Among them the hulking Ritchson comes off best, merely because he’s most adept at quietly dismissing the material with a smile as trash, but Olusanmokun gets by with his unforced suavity, as des Sapani with his bravado; González, unfortunately, is reduced to posing alluringly as the beauteous femme fatale, and her wardrobe (designed by LouLou Bontemps) seems to be acting better than she is.

The picture, shot by cinematographer Ed Wild for the most part in Turkey (as was much of Richie’s “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” released last year), looks good enough, with Martyn John’s production design more than adequate.  But James Herbert’s editing never finds a proper footing: many sequences drag on forever, and the big action ones are often messy.  Chris Benstead contributes an oddball score, many cuts in which sound like ersatz Morricone while others are nothing more than percussive jazz riffs, mostly drums with woodwind obbligatos.

As Richie action comedies go, this one is even weaker than “Operation Fortune.”  Though Cavill, though insufferably smug, is hardly worse than stone-faced Jason Statham, at least the earlier movie had Hugh Grant as compensation. This one offers no such saving grace.