The story of Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre will likely forever be defined by just how long it ended up sat on the shelf. Guy Ritchie’s action-comedy spy flick was first due for release in January of 2022, then got pushed back to March on account of Spider-Man: No Way Home eating everybody’s lunch around that time, before being pulled entirely without comment that February.
With lack of an official word on the matter, rumours spread that the film’s producers felt releasing a fun action flick with Ukrainian baddies right as the country suffered a horrific Russian invasion would be in bad taste. In reality, it was likely more due to the studio, STX Entertainment, spending most of 2022 going tits up and all of its movies getting caught in the tailspin, but that’s not a particularly sexy story to explain why a decently-marketed mid-budget flick would just up and disappear for an entire year. In any case, Lionsgate ended up releasing the movie in March 2023 with just three weeks’ notice, where it promptly bombed. And now, a month later, Operation Fortune has met the same fate as Ritchie and star Jason Statham’s last collaboration together, Wrath of Man, by going straight-to-Prime Video in the UK.
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With a delay like that, one might have built themselves up to expect either a gigantic fiasco that no studio wanted to claim responsibility for, or a hidden gem snuffed of the recognition it deserves by forces outside of its control. After all, Ritchie’s last go in the action-comedy spy pond was 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., his best work in the Hollywood system, the best spy movie of that year, and one which only started getting its due flowers in the half-decade after release. In reality, and rather like the similarly-beleaguered Wrath of Man, Operation Fortune is just a solid little B-movie. The kind of breezy, low-stakes, dependable joint that Statham would crank out by the dozen in the late-00s/early-10s. Not that I consider this a bad thing. I grew up on a steady diet of these entertaining but unspectacular Statham vehicles and, in a landscape where this sort of movie has disappeared from cinemas, seeing a new one in 2023 is its own little treat.
In the grand tradition of Lee Christmas, Jensen Ames, and Nick Wild, Statham’s latest preposterously-named protagonist is Orson Fortune. He’s a suave super-spy with a penchant for expensive wines and backtalking his doorstop handler, Nathan (Cary Elwes), working for a freelance intelligence outfit. When an unidentified group of gunmen steal a top-secret device worth billions of dollars known as “The Handle”, the British government hires Orson’s team – rounded out by snappy tech expert Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and footman J.J. (Bugzy Malone) – to find out who stole the device, who it’s being sold to, and what it even is. With the only fence capable of shifting the merch being billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), the team concoct a plan to ingratiate themselves in the recluse’s inner circle by blackmailing his favourite movie star, Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), into becoming buddies with him.
As is often the case with Ritchie’s Hollywood flicks, this set-up is both as stylishly delivered as it is inelegant in the details. In general, the narrative is choppy and feels both under-and-over-plotted. One would expect the angle of Danny being thrust against his will into going undercover with a deadly arms dealer to be a central aspect of the film, but Ritchie and his fellow screenwriters, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, don’t wring it for much material. Instead, we jump from scenario to scenario as Orson and his team work through a series of negligibly-related middle-men who, we are told, will gradually get them closer to recovering the device. It’s a constant forward-momentum train where plot arguably takes a backseat to hanging out watching good spies solve the tasks put in front of them. The kind of movie which makes out a lot is happening even though, if you stop and think for too long, it actually isn’t since there’s no grander point being made and our protagonists are static.
That’s not to say there couldn’t be. Throughout Fortune, Orson’s team keep butting heads with a different freelance espionage firm headed up by the bullish Mike (Peter Ferdinando). It’s often mentioned that these firms are hired by opposing governments or even the same government and forced to compete against each other for the payment of a job successfully scored. You can see Ritchie getting close to playing in the same spiked pool as Man from U.N.C.L.E., where a caper-y spy flick carries a surprisingly disarming kicker about how national intelligence agencies use and burn their spies as if they’re numbers on a sheet rather than human beings. Christopher Benstead’s score has a grandiosity which would certainly fit such an angle. But Ritchie, perhaps intentionally although the film at large does feel a tad underwritten – no more so than when it comes to the villains’ various ideologies (or more accurately lack thereof) – pulls back from that angle which does feel like a missed opportunity, since he’s proven he can execute this turn before, but mainly leads to the score sounding out of place.
Comparisons to U.N.C.L.E. aren’t unwarranted, but don’t do Fortune many favours. The characters are sketches for the cast to fill in with their natural charisma, and the dialogue can lack the memorable snap that Ritchie is known for. (Because this is a Ritchie film, though, there is at least one great monologue in there.) The film ends real abruptly, or at least is delivered in such a way as to make me think there were 10 minutes lost somewhere. Most noticeably, Fortune feels like a COVID production. Though hopping around the globe and doing a lot of on-location shooting in Turkey, the cinematography is overall quite plain, lacking Ritchie’s usual fanciful tricks, and there is often a lot of conspicuous dead space between characters in-shot.
Despite the shoddy edges and lack of ambition, Operation Fortune at least has the spark of fun and genuine zip that often characterises the most likeable of disposable action flicks. The action scenarios themselves are boilerplate and deliberately lacking in tension, since Orson is the kind of spy who functions as a walking GoldenEye007 cheat code, but Ritchie finds creative means of realising them. A shootout told through rifle scopes and gyro cameras, a tail-chase more about blocking a phone call for back-up rather than catching the guy, the opening heist of “The Handle” being comprised of flash-cut edits synched to Nathan’s walk into the government office rather than being shown in full. James Herbert’s editing is a very welcome presence, following Ritchie’s lead in refusing to get hung up on the mechanics of things and breezing us along from one set-piece to another.
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Although characterisations are thin on the ground, I did enjoy hanging out with this cast. They have a natural easy-going chemistry which elevates the dialogue’s less inspired moments whilst also selling with gusto the campier and more entertaining routines. Hugh Grant is evidently having a whale of a time milking yet another scenery-chewing insecure villain role. Statham gets to lean a little more into the comedic side of his repertoire that only Ritchie and Paul Feig have ever bothered to tap in spite of how good he is at it; his first exchange with Nathan, going through the five w’s with a “fuck” bolted onto each, is a fantastic example of how his delivery can make basic jokes land with aplomb. Aubrey Plaza plays to type, deadpan and sardonic with a hint of dirty flirtiness, but it fits very well in Ritchie’s world and she gets to serve some looks with the film’s classy costume work. The entire cast are all enjoying themselves and that energy radiates through the camera, papering over most of the foundational cracks that would sink lesser B-movies.
In certain cases, saying that you’ll forget all about a movie within a week is a bad thing. A marker of something which utterly failed to engage, left no impression for good or ill, and merely wasted one’s time in the most joyless way possible. The past half-decade or so has seen this sort of action B-movie suffer from a relentless string of offenders which fit that bill, as the streamers and Millennium Media suck all the joy and craft out of the form. Gristle for the content mill. But when I say that I’m likely going to forget all about Operation Fortune within a week, I mean it as a kind of compliment. It’s the sort of movie designed to throw on, relax into, chuckle at the funny or exciting bits, and then pass out of your system leaving warm feelings and “yeah, that was pretty alright” observations between you and whomever you’re watching it with. No ideas above its station, no fuss, just a solid sub-two hour-shot of entertainment. That’s what separates a true B-movie like Operation Fortune from Netflix’s 900 drab efforts at the same.
Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre is out now on Amazon Prime Video.