Forced wit is a special kind of awful. Not that Guy Ritchie’s new film, “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” doesn’t have some genuinely clever moments and other highlights, but when there’s a blatant attempt at winking to show off just how witty everyone involved is, it lands so flat and awkward. Ritchie’s last film, “Wrath of Man,” was an incredible action/thriller type that showcased great gunwork, excellent characterization and an intriguing plot. “Operation Fortune” finds the filmmaker returning to the style of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” meaning a lot of banter and a super-casual approach to the type of espionage that deals with a catastrophic threat. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” worked because it was consistently clever and awash in terrific retro style. “Operation Fortune,” on the other hand, has standout sequences and characters but never feels like a cohesive whole or as fun as the movie insists that it is. It’s an okay distraction with notable highlights, but it mostly feels like a muddled misfire.
When a mysterious object is stolen from a secret lab, the British government turns to covert consultant Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) to assemble a team to find out what was stolen, by whom and who is buying the goods. Jasmine turns to his favorite operative, Orson Fortune (Jason Statham), to lead the group, even though Fortune’s expensive tastes always run afoul of the budget. Along for the ride are communications expert Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and all-around badass JJ Davies (Bugzy Malone). They only know one thing about the situation: The buy is being brokered by international arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant). Simmonds has a soft spot for celebrities, so the team enlists his favorite Hollywood superstar, Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), to help infiltrate the operation. The spies must contend with all this while also competing with another group of espionage “consultants” who constantly get in the way.
While “Operation Fortune” falters a lot, there are some notably excellent aspects to it. Plaza shines as a clever smartass who is incredibly capable at her job and trades terrific banter with Statham and others. Similarly, Grant is hilarious in his smarmy role of a billionaire fanboy with his gross and boisterous remarks. There’s also some fun dialogue, particularly in the hands of those two performers, and genuinely clever moments. Another highlight is that the film looks great thanks to DP Alan Stewart, production designer Martyn John and costume designer Tina Kalivas, who all add to the gorgeous vistas and opulent settings.
Unfortunately, everything else falls pretty flat. The movie wants to be a clever take on the spy film with a casual approach to the dangers involved while also featuring engaging action sequences and moments of great seriousness. The action is perfunctory and not very interesting despite efforts to make it exciting with spectacle and impressive fight choreography. None of it feels new or hard-hitting or anything that amounts to fun, and it runs counter to the breezier tones that permeate most of the runtime. Ritchie (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies) also goes back to one of his worst habits by trying to introduce a very grave moment amidst the otherwise gleeful shenanigans, though it never works.
Most of the comedic aspects, outside of Grant and Plaza, are fine but not especially funny. It’s the type of humor that evokes a subtle acknowledgment that what was said was kind of clever but is mostly devoid of any real wit. And considering that the bulk of “Operation Fortune” consists of the same ratatat dialogues, it all blends together into a quasi-funny blandness. There are constant jokes about Fortune’s expensive tastes, Jasmine’s inability to control his spies or how anxious Francesco is about his involvement in the scheme, but they never evolve or become anything more than the same punchline. On that note, the Francesco plotline seems like it’ll be the main hook for the movie (not dissimilar to “I, Spy”), but it keeps disappearing for massive sections of the story. It’s bizarre to introduce such an interesting element and then barely use it throughout. This all feels connected to the film feeling scattershot and attempting to move in too many directions, serving many masters but pleasing none.
In an incredibly uneven career of solid hits and horrific misses, it’s especially frustrating to watch Ritchie go from one of his best films (“Wrath of Man”) to a mediocre one that feels like a pale imitation of something he’s already done (and done better). “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” isn’t a complete failure, and there are elements that deserve praise, but the majority is a limp affair that never fully engages.
Starring: Jason Statham, Aubrey Plaza, Josh Hartnett, Hugh Grant, Cary Elwes
Director: Guy Ritchie