Most of the time, when a film is pulled from a studio’s release schedule, it’s because the movie either isn’t finished and won’t be on time, or it’s incredibly bad, necessitating a new date in order to let it quietly die alongside much stronger competition at the box office. Sometimes it’s both. Over the last couple of years, of course, there’s been the added variable of the COVID pandemic, forcing distributors and other money men to make calculations on whether or not audiences will even be able to make it out to the theatres.
But in very rare cases, the delay is made in good faith to address a legitimate issue. This is what happened a few years back when the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog was released to the horror of the masses, leading Paramount to spend three months and an insane amount of money to redesign the Blue Blur and get him in a form that the viewers would actually enjoy watching.
I thought for a while that Guy Ritchie’s latest cheeky action thriller, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, would be in the former camp. It was originally scheduled for January last year, during the annual studio dumbing ground, but was then pushed to March. We didn’t even get a trailer before it was pulled again. Something seemed off, especially because the second removal didn’t come with any official reasoning. When it’s a COVID issue, the powers that be are fairly forthcoming about it, because they don’t want to give the impression that they’ve lost confidence in the finished product.
With yet another delay last November, it was looking more and more like this was a lost cause, as STX (itself going through its second buyout this decade) seemed to be leaning towards a streaming and VOD-only release as part of its restructuring (though it was still released internationally this January), until Lionsgate swooped in and decided to give it a theatrical run, including finally releasing a trailer that looked alright.
There’s still no official word on why the film was kept out for so long, but the rumor mill has it thusly. Part of the plot involves a gang of mercenaries stealing a MacGuffin for an arms dealer played by Hugh Grant, who plans to sell it to some very rich, very powerful, and very dangerous men. In the original cut of the film, the mercs were explicitly Ukrainian. Given the imminent invasion by Russia and Vladimir Putin, predicated in propaganda on the idea that Ukraine was a hotbed for terrorism and Nazis, Ritchie decided to re-edit the film to remove such references. If true, that is an uncommonly decent move, one made in very good taste. Because even though this movie is largely a goof, such an association, even made in jest, would have come off as incredibly tone deaf and insensitive.
As such, just like with Sonic, I decided to reward this very proper decision with my movie-going dollars. It still got trounced at the box office by Creed III last weekend, and it only has a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but when corporate interests so rarely do things like actual human beings, it’s sort of incumbent upon us to at least acknowledge it, even if we can’t fully endorse the actual product on the screen.
And honestly, despite the literal nature of its critical aggregate score, the movie isn’t half bad. It’s flawed in places, certainly, but at the same time, this is a Guy Ritchie action film. You know exactly what you’re getting into, and the movie delivers what it promises in a mostly fun affair. Truth be told, I only have two real issues with the whole thing. One is that it crosses the line between self-aware and meta winking a bit too casually for my tastes, and the other is that there are a few too many scenes that feel like a cleverly-worded dick measuring contest.
Even then, sometimes the lesser elements work. For example, the entire story is set up like a sequel, with the characters acting as if they’ve already had missions and adventures together. The title itself plays into this, first by including a subtitle as if this is an entry in a franchise, and also by the fact that the lead character, played by Jason Statham, is called Orson Fortune. It’s a genuinely fun nod to the likes of the Mission: Impossible series and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the latter of which Ritchie previously adapted in 2015.
That’s an interesting bit of cleverness, as is the establishment of the characters. Working for the British government, Fortune is hired by his frequent handler, Nathan (a very game Cary Elwes), who makes reference to his charge’s offscreen indulgences as if we’ve seen them all before, even though we haven’t. When Nathan assembles Fortune’s team, he includes the trusty JJ (Bugzy Malone, who featured in Ritchie’s 2019 film, The Gentlemen), but makes note that another operative named John, whom Fortune relies upon, has switched allegiances and joined up with a competitor spy named Mike (Peter Ferdinando), and has thus been replaced with newcomer Sarah Fidel, played by Aubrey Plaza, who is a master hacker and an expert at fieldcraft. In any other series, this development would be obvious foreshadowing to John and/or Sarah pulling a double-cross, or in a much lesser spy parody, used as a means to make bad sex pun/cultural slur be having someone be “In Fidel.” Instead, John is basically never seen except in the background (actor Nicholas Facey has like, two lines), and Sarah is an instant fit in the team, right down to joining in with the friendly trash-talking. She’s even the one who makes the bad “in” sex joke about a different character. Credit where it’s due, the script knows how to toy with your expectations while still being quite straightforward.
Anyway, the now vaguely Eastern European operatives have stolen a top-secret piece of tech known only as “The Handle,” for arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Grant), who plans to sell it to the highest bidder. In what can only be a statement on the nature of MacGuffins in general and/or the very notion of British Intelligence agencies, Nathan makes it clear that no one even knows what “The Handle” is, only that it must be retrieved before it can do any harm. To do this, Fortune blackmails/recruits Hollywood action star Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett in the best performance he’s ever given; take that for whatever it’s worth), who just happens to be Simmonds’ favorite actor, and convinces him to simply play into the billionaire’s fandom in order to let Sarah get close enough to manipulate his security and get the details necessary to stop the sale of “The Handle” to whomever is buying it. Meanwhile, they also have to periodically contend with Mike and his own team, who seem to have way too much advance information on things and always happen to be on site whenever Fortune and his crew show up.
This is part of what I mean by too easily crossing into meta territory. It’s one thing to have a mystery and let us play along. It’s quite another to throw the solution in our faces and have our heroes be too dumb to see what’s going on yet still genius enough to foil everything else. Moreover, as fun as Hugh Grant is in Ritchie’s films, he’s basically playing a version of the same character he played in The Gentlemen, just with another name. Speaking of names, Simmonds ruins the fun of Fortune being an obvious action star pastiche by outright commenting on how he’s got a movie star name, and this is after a previous scene where he noted how his physique lends itself more to an enforcer or stuntman than his assumed identity (for the moment) of a business manager to Danny. Each location in the film is stamped with an oppressively red, giant text font accompanied by a much smaller one underneath that can barely be read because of how it blends into the lighting in the background of the establishing shot. A somewhat odd bit where JJ’s dialogue over a radio frequency is subtitled (ostensibly due to the character’s very heavy accent) is instead a setup for an even weirder payoff where the subtitles themselves get glitchy and disappear from the screen once he jams the comms systems of Mike’s henchmen. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but who is that for? It’s one thing to play up and subvert tropes, but it’s another to break the fourth wall for the sake of a gag that just pulls you out of the moment and kills any tension the scene might otherwise have.
Still, on the whole I enjoyed myself. I liked that the story plays things fairly straight, with no need for superfluous twists and betrayals like so many bad movies would have done. I liked how obvious it was that the cast was having a blast making this, with Plaza, Hartnett, Elwes, and Grant all gleefully chewing scenery and breaking each others’ balls when the moment calls for it (though it does get excessive in a couple of places, especially when Sarah plays a sexism card that doesn’t exist; the closest thing to a microaggression being Fortune’s surprise that John’s replacement is a woman, but Sarah wasn’t there for that particular reaction). There aren’t many action scenes, but when we get them, they’re choreographed, shot, and edited quite well.
In short, this is the exact amount of perfectly mindless entertainment that we’ve come to expect from Guy Ritchie over the years. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but it does occasionally take a stylistic chance in case we ever want to return to this universe and these characters. And most importantly, for once it’s a movie that was delayed for the right reasons, with the people in charge willing to take a loss if it means a net gain for society. Even if the flick was terrible, I’d still have to at least respect it for that much.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy movies that parody certain genres while also acting as a typical entry? On a scale of 1-to-shit your pants, how scared would you be to get in a fight with Jason Statham? Let me know!