When people find an actor enthralling, they say they’d watch them read something as banal as the phonebook. (What’s a phonebook?) In Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, Hugh Grant does something even more impressive. The British charmer turns reading of 15-digit passcode into a tour-de-force performance, elevating the combination of letters, numbers, and symbols into art — glib, marvelously pervy art. Operation Fortune is a perfectly fine Guy Ritchie film, full of the requisite glam locations, sharp tailoring, and smug heroes, but Grant elevates this brisk, breezy action movie every minute he’s on screen.
Operation Fortune kicks off with quick cuts and the matching rat-a-tat heel clicks of a sharp-suited Nathan (Cary Elwes), as he walks through the marbled halls of a London government building where Norman (Eddie Marsan) hires him to obtain “The Handle.” The script from Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies, and Ritchie slyly winks at the spy movie trope of the MacGuffin, centering their mission on recovering a $10 billion stolen item, but no one knows what it actually is. There are the compulsory locked briefcases and downloaded drives, but it’s less important what The Handle is, and more important that it is important. (When its nature is finally revealed, the answer ends up being oh-so 2023, or at least 2022, since that’s when the film was initially supposed to be released.)
To Norman’s annoyance, Nathan (Cary Elwes) hires expensive-wine-swigging, private-plane-flying Orson Fortune (Jason Statham, natch) to lead his team. Nathan also brings hacker Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and sharpshooter JJ Davies (Bugzy Malone) on board, but they quickly realize they aren’t the only team on the job. They’re battling a rival cadre of spies, who seem to be matching their every move and meeting them at every location.
The linchpin for the operation is elusive billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Grant), who will be brokering the deal of whatever-it-is between an unknown seller and an even more mysterious buyer. The only way to get close to him is through his favorite actor, Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett). Via some … unorthodox methods, Orson’s team convinces the Hollywood star to accompany them on their mission, and his presence turns the elusive billionaire arms dealer into a fawning fanboy, giving them access to the master criminal, his devices, and his associates. There are shades of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent in this plot, but Operation Fortune was originally slated to come out before that Nicolas Cage movie, so we’ll forgive any overlap (though the presence of Pedro Pascal here wouldn’t have hurt, because it never does).
Like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Operation Fortune is somehow very silly and yet not silly enough. Ritchie almost always works better when he’s in fun mode, versus wallowing in the grim drudgery of something like Wrath of Man. He’s definitely having a good time here, slipping in nods to The Princess Bride while gleefully having Statham punch throats and crush nuts in practically every other scene. Plaza is playing a spy, but she is basically putting the meme-ified version herself on the big screen, dripping dry humor and seducing everyone within range. I’m not complaining, and neither should you. Grant gets a laugh almost every time he opens that smirking mouth, and his interactions with the well-cast and clearly game Hartnett are a pleasure.
Yet the film feels like it should take things just a little bit further in how ridiculous it is, instead of merely feinting at it. There are dull stretches, with a notable lull after its electric first scene, though it pick ups speed as it careens toward the climax, full of inevitable explosions, nonstop gunfire, and growling Statham beating the shit out of all the baddies. We get what we want, but the movie wastes too much time on needlessly complex plotting, tiring us out by the time we get to the enjoyable end.
Operation Fortune is the ne plus ultra of Ritchie films, and your mileage for it may vary depending on your level of affection for its various elements. Grant can’t make you giggle with a rakish grin? Get an eye twitch from Ritchie’s trademark fast-paced editing? Don’t find Plaza super hot and funny? You may be wise to skip Operation Fortune, but those who do find joy (or at least diversion) in its core qualities will have a decent time. It’s no sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but at least we got more Grant.
“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” is in theaters Friday.