Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre (2022) ***

The only redemptive factor in this too-clever-for-its-own-good post-ironic mess is a gorgeous performance by Hugh Grant. The one-time romantic male lead has shorn the floppy locks, put to bed the trademark stumbling over words and taken to the dark side. From pantomime villain in Paddington 2 (2017), through small-screen A Very English Scandal (2018) and The Undoing (2020) to Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (2023), Grant has reinvented himself as a baddie par excellence.

If there is any justice in the world or, put another way, some Hollywood or streaming mogul wanting to cash in on an instantly attractive character, they should be thinking of a film or television series revolving around his wonderful Cockney billionaire criminal, the epitome of the diamond geezer. The moment he appears, about a quarter of the way in, the film lights up. When he departs, it falls flat again.

Not surprisingly, given it is the embodiment of the over-egged pudding. The movie’s idea of character depth is to make all-round thug Nathan (Jason Statham) a wine connoisseur. Statham’s done pretty well to turn from a supporting actor to lean B-movie (Crank, 2006) shoot-‘em-ups to second banana in big budget pictures like the Fast and Furious franchise and The Meg (you didn’t think Jason was the actual star, did you, when there was a monster the size of a city block on the loose). In growl and unshaven cheeks, he may look like Bruce Willis, but Bruce Willis he ain’t. And he ain’t Charles Bronson either, despite rolling the dice twice on The Mechanic( 2011 and 2016).

Whitehall mandarin Knighton (Eddie Marsan) calls on smooth operative Nathan (Cary Elwes), who spends a lot of time eating, to put together a bunch of government-sponsored crooks – Orson (Jason Statham), Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) and JJ (Bugzy Malone) – to find a stolen artefact and prevent it being sold on to international gangsters or terrorists. Only problem is, nobody knows what was stolen. But somebody must know its value because another gang, led by turncoat Mike (Peter Ferdinando), is chasing the same item.

There’s a ton of computer jiggery-pokery that mostly gets in the way but suffice to say top-ranked crook Greg (Hugh Grant) is seen as being at the centre of whatever is going on, whatever that is, your guess is as good as mine. Lo and behold – what larks! – there’s a dead easy way to get inside Greg’s fortress (a giant ocean-going yacht): he is a huge fan of action star Danny (Josh Hartnett) who is recruited to play himself (a conceit too post-ironic for simple irony).

For a man as rich as Greg and as generous – he raises money for war orphans – Greg keeps poor company and consequently leads Nathan’s team to their prey, cueing burglaries, chases, fisticuffs. But most of the excitement is undercut by the aforementioned jiggery-pokery. It’s hard to concentrate on the action if every two seconds Nathan or Sarah is listening to a voice in his ear or we are being told by a third party that such some cute implausible jiggery-pokery is simplifying their tasks.

There are some electrifying sequences: the opening robbery taking place to the sound of Nathan’s footsteps echoing along a long marble hallway; a burglary where the occupants, rendered unconscious by jiggery-pokery, are so out of it Nathan can remove rings from fingers and watches from wrists.

But all the time this ultra-clever stuff is going on you just wished director Guy Ritchie (Wrath of Man, 2021) would have the sense of turn the camera back on to the one real characters in the ensemble, Greg, who doesn’t need anyone whispering in his ear or rely on jiggery-pokery to get through a scene.

Two brilliantly-scripted scenes demonstrated the talent gap between Grant and Statham. Nathan has his eye on Sarah and the scene between them where he imagines an immediate sexual connection is toe-curlingly superb. Nathan has a scene where, confusingly, he answers “yes” to each of Nathan’s questions and it comes off like a guide in how not to play comedy.

I’m not usually one to thank streaming giants for putting cinema-ready material on the small screen, but here I’m pretty grateful for saving me the expense. I’d seen a trailer for this months ago and thought it sounded pretty good. But if I’d seen it at the cinema I’d have been far more disappointed given the time and effort involved. As it was, I could stop the show and go back to watch the Hugh Grant scenes.

The concept could have been an ideal picture if it had come down to a more bare-bones story of two jumped-up thugs trying to gain the upper hand. I feel sorry for Statham. If Hugh Grant hadn’t delivered such a terrific performance, he wouldn’t have the movie stolen from under his feet. Two one-time big stars, Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, 1987) and Josh Hartnett  (Black Hawk Down, 2001) play against type while Aubrey Plaza (Emily the Criminal, 2022), mostly loaded down with exposition, sparkles.

Watch it for Hugh Grant.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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