Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre
Guy Ritchie’s productivity has been overdrive over the past few years, which suggests there’s either a very efficient programmed clone doing his job instead, or he’s celebrating now his ex-missus is safely out of the way*. Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre finds him returning to the spycraft territory of financial failure The Men from U.N.C.L.E. – with Hugh Grant in tow – but with a significantly lower budget, somewhat offset by several exotic vistas (doubling for the likes of Morocco, the Barbary Coast and Dohar). It has more than a whiff of a “That’ll do” effort, a holiday doodle comedy-actioner that suits the Stath’s straight-man glower and offers just enough variety to keep (co-writer) Ritchie happy.
Danny Francesco: I play a mysterious self-made billionaire who goes on a transcendental journey from material genius to spiritual giant.
Which is to say, it’s neither as raucously funny and effectively cast as The Gentlemen, nor as dramatically proficient as Wrath of Man. It’s also condemned – possibly fortunately, in that there’s no direct blame for failure – to an ignominious shrug of a release upon the sale of STX (whose business model has been one of mid-range budgets, ultra-rare these days), thus granted a very limited US theatrical release before going to streaming. It does feel like that kind of “Can we be bother to sell this thing?” movie, though, with an incontinently parodic title (original Five Eyes goes to the other, dull extreme) and a larky caper plot that provides a few diversions but limited bite.
Ritchie stages a few decent set pieces as Orson Fortune (the Stath) and his team Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) and JJ (Bugzy Malone) attempt to gain possession of a super-valuable piece of stolen tech (The Handle) before it’s sold to its ultimate bidder. There’s an airport altercation in Madrid, in which a rival team led by Mike (Peter Ferdinando) makes its presence known, a jaunty bit of a break-in to the accompaniment of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is playing on the TV), a foot pursuit of lawyer Ben (Max Beesley), who can blow Orson’s cover, and Orson subsequently posing as Ben for the sale. This leads to a first-class Stath emphasis on the last word of the sentence “He’s executed the Ukrainians and taken the AI. I’m going after him in a chopper”.
Orson: I can get inside the Ukrainians.
Sarah: I hope you take them to dinner first… Before you get inside them… Sexually.
None of this displays the hyperactive flair of Ritchie at full volume, however, which is why I wondered if this might be his half-measures facsimile at work (like Spielberg and The Fabelmans). The cast is a reliable mish-mash, for the most part. The Stath delivers his patented brand of bruiser. Obviously, there’s no romance with him involved, probably to Plaza’s relief (the above quote is Ritchie writing at its most reliably schoolboy). She’s fine, but not as memorable as she can be. Malone disappears into the scenery, apart from an amusing moment of his being turned on to expensive wine. Eddie Marsan shows up at a table in the United Grand Lodge of England (that would, as the name suggests, be the governing lodge of the majority of freemasons in England, Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and “a number of districts overseas). I wonder if Guy’s a member of a lodge. Of course, he is.
Josh Hartnett has a great opportunity here, as spoiled Hollywood star Danny Francesco, blackmailed to butter up Hugh Grant’s arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Greg’s a Francesco fan) and thus gain the crew access Greg’s home, but he’s… adequate at best. Perhaps Ritchie thought he could engineer a career rehabilitation, what with this and Wrath of Man, but it doesn’t really pay off (and Hartnett’s impression of Greg for the movie adaptation at the end is shockingly bad, but maybe that’s the point. Hartnett also bears a passing resemblance to George Hamilton in Greg’s overapplied tan makeup (as Greg complains to an assistant earlier, “Yesterday I looked like fucking Gandhi”).
Greg: Orson Fortune. That’s a sexy name. Yes, it is. (To Sarah) You must fancy him a bit.
The real stars of the show are Cary Elwes as Orson’s British government handler Nathan Jasmine, relishing the opportunity to be oh-so superior and above it all (it’s a amusingly scripted part, with Jasmine confidently unruffled at any eventuality and looking indulgently upon Orson’s expenses-indulgent agent). Grant is great, obviously, Arthur Daley as a smut peddler. It isn’t the riot his The Gentleman turn was, but he’s still nabbed the most entertaining character here; while one might see this as a means of making arms dealers sympathetic, were one very lazy, Greg’s really just the latest in a line of loveably unscrupulous, low-life wheeler-dealers, only this one somehow got lucky.
We first meet him at a gala for war orphans, the irony being underlined along with the cynicism of such causes, where he comments “Actually, we’ve got two of the war orphans here tonight, and they’re really annoying”. Grant pretty much carries’ Hartnett’s wooden awe at Greg, who announces of Hussein, Gadhafi, and Escobar “There is a reason none of them have refused to pay me”. And proceeds to show his debtors why. The character’s basically a variant on The Gentlemen’s Fletcher, but it’s a Grant pose that reaps endless dividends, and I’d happily see him continue in this line, alternating it with being dismissive at the Oscars.
Operation Fortune yields several noteworthy plot points, ones that could as well be chalked up as standard-issue hunting around for the latest permittable villains and/or MacGuffins and/or global threats, but anything of any profile in the current environment should be regarded as of potential import.
So the Ukrainian bad guys – the ones who initially steal the Handle – are, on the face of things, a faux pas, the movie filming almost a year before the invasion of the Ukraine. At which point, obviously, the entire country became angelic in the eyes of the media. Clearly, it’s far simpler and more straightforward to have Russian villains in Hollywood movies; for propaganda purposes, Ukrainians need to be whiter than white, at least when it suits the agenda. So while this aspect gave the producers visible pause, after the fact, is the actual message, in relation to their sacrosanct status, “No, they’re not you know” (not least from the perspective of theories as to why the Ukraine has merited the attention it has from White Hat Putin)? And a line like “If the Ukrainians enter another country illegally, they’re gonna need help avoiding any risks with the authorities” might be understood in a different context, in the light of all their open-borders influx. Mind you, one could also interpret “The world is a much, much bigger place than you could possibly imagine. Allow me to show it to you” literally, if one so wished.
And then there are the other villains, in the form of biotech billionaires Trent (Tom Rosenthal) and Arnold (Oliver Maltman). There’s good reason to make biotech types the personification of (nerdy) evil; Bill Gates is one of the arena’s foremost investors, after all. The bracket covers a multitude of sins – GMOs, CRISPR, bioweapons, genetic engineering (cloning, eugenics) – as well as more innocuous uses – brewing – and feeds into such cardinal abuses as transhumanism and postgenderism. So yeah, ultra-bad guys. And what are these bad young things, worth $22bn and $17bn, up to?
Nathan: It can hack into any system. Even other AI programmes. It can launch a nuclear strike, and then cover its own tracks pointing the finger at whomever it wants to blame.
That would be the MacGuffin, and the plan to utilise it. The theft constitutes “The first of its kind programmable AI”. While nukes are mentioned in passing, this is all about the dangers of artificial intelligence, whereby “whatever is run by a computer, it controls”. Trent and Arnold plan to use the AI “in conjunction with a concert of satellites” (those things held up by balloons). Their purpose: “To trip up the world’s banking system”. We are told “The Handle would be a financial atomic bomb. It’ll create a digital glitch in the world’s banking system”, and only a few minutes would be enough for trusts to evaporate, leaving one particular precious metal as the only remaining currency with any credibility: “So that’s why they’re buying 40 billion dollars’ worth of gold”.
Greg: By the time they’ve finished, gold is the only thing you’ll be able to buy a sticky book with.
The curiosity of this is that the fragility of the fiat banking system is the major reason truthers, in particular, have been investing in and promoting gold and silver (especially silver), on the basis that it’s the only “currency” with any true value (okay, you have your bitcoin adherents, but then you get back into potential digital-glitch territory). So Guy’s latest movie is warning us of the dangers of both AI and the banks, both of which may now have been averted as threats (AI) or under White Hat control (banks), but are nevertheless very much in the forefront of the public consciousness via several controlled demolitions (of banks) and visible uses of the potential perils of AI (ChatGPT).
Nathan: Anarchy would follow whole the world reorganises itself.
Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre is an otherwise inconspicuous time passer, a movie whose title sounds like something the Canon group would have slopped out during the ’80s (perhaps Ritchie had exactly that in mind). It’s good fun, Grant is great, as is Elwes, but there’s a pervading sense of not really trying too hard about it (possibly, however, set next to his next two militaristic vehicles The Covenant and The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, it will retrospectively seem like the heights of inventive brio).
*Addendum 12/04/23: The correct option is that Ritchie is dead. A clone has been making his movies over the past couple of years; he’s certainly been much more productive since he expired than he was in life.