Landing in multiplexes more than a year late after some business reshuffling and rewrites (not a good idea for your bad guys to be Ukrainian gangsters at this moment in history), Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre is a slick and empty-headed spy thriller that is almost instantly forgettable. One single outstanding element, however, is likely to stay with you long after every other aspect of this ponderously titled actioner has slipped unremembered into the pop culture ether.
OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE ★★ (2/4 stars)
So, with that, let’s raise a pint to Hugh Grant!
This is nothing new for Grant; the Four Weddings and a Funeral star has been at least partially redeeming the Cockneyed genre rehashes of Operation Fortune director Guy Ritchie since the pair first teamed up for 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Grant’s hilariously seedy P.I. was also the chief selling point of Ritchie’s 2019 cannabis caper The Gentlemen.)
This time, Grant musters his inner Bob Hoskins in a joyful turn as a streetwise and starstruck billionaire arms dealer who is brokering the sale of something called “The Handle,” a briefcase of super-tech that either controls the planet’s defense systems, the world economy or both— it’s hard to tell.
Ritchie is about as invested in the details of his story as he is in the characters that populate it; that is to say, not at all.
Given the spark-free relationships between the main players, not to mention the leaden and consistently unfunny dialogue, Ritchie was similarly unconcerned with the script, which he co-wrote with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, the same pair who helped develop the story for The Gentlemen. (That Grant generates so many laughs is due entirely to his manner, which is as smug and dry as a well-made martini, and not because he has actually been given anything funny to do.)
Ritchie—now on his 13th film since making his directorial debut with 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels—is significantly more engaged in the act of putting together a movie. From an opening sequence that syncopates the hard-sole footfalls of Cary Elwes’ intelligence middle man with a bloody attack on a tech-laboratory to an explosive denouement high above London, Ritchie rhythmically crafts the film to enter our frontal lobes with almost frictionless efficiency. His movies are cinematic Diet Cherry Cokes: they go down easily enough provided you don’t think about what you’re ingesting.
In this outing, Ritchie is particularly in sync with longtime musical collaborator Christopher Benstead, whose percussive and bouncy score provides a spark of vitality that is otherwise missing from the script.
While the director’s love of craft can be seen in everything from the costumes (he has long been one of contemporary mainstream movie’s most menswear-forward filmmakers) to casting, it fails to extend to the performances—outside of Grant’s.
Jason Statham, on his fourth collaboration with Ritchie, is doing little more than going through the motions as a fine wine loving, “specific set of skills” guy unfortunately named Orson Fortune, while Ritchie newcomer Aubrey Plaza plays tech specialist Sarah Fidel as if she is waiting for the valet to bring her car. Josh Hartnett, as a movie star himbo used by the operatives to bait Grant’s superfan, seems so profoundly lost you wonder if he was even given a character to play.
Indeed, Richie’s innate understanding of how to piece together the raw ingredients of the film form combined with his absolute butchery of its dramatic elements makes you wonder if it wasn’t time for him to graduate to a form of filmmaking less reliant on character, dialogue and plot—nature documentaries, perhaps?
Just as long as Hugh Grant is on hand to provide the narration, of course.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.