For 25 years, I have never been much of a Guy Ritchie fan. I found the in-your-face-and-over-the-top crime dramas that made his reputation — “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” “Revolver,” and “RocknRolla” — to be empty-flashy exercises in the too-muchness of genre kinetics, overly infatuated with their post-Tarantino cutthroat cool. It was clear that Ritchie had talent, but the way just about every shot in his movies was designed to remind you of that turned the films into layer cakes that were more frosting than cake. After a while, he dropped the badass glitz and settled into a more conventional career, and some of those movies were okay. I confess that I enjoyed his remake of “Swept Away” (yes, the one with Madonna), and he had fun applying what was left of his high-froth ADD style to the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” franchise. Yet I could never escape the feeling that Guy Ritchie had trapped himself on a hamster wheel of trying too hard. I’ve liked a few of his films. But I’ve never loved one.
Until now. You might call “Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre” a classic Ritchie caper, since it’s a fast-paced espionage drama — otherwise known as a crime thriller in which the good guys get to commit crimes — full of characters who sport some version of the Ritchie attitude. That starts with Jason Statham, who was featured in all those early Ritchie movies (he made his big-screen debut in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), and who plays Orson Fortune, a steely invincible superspy with chess-game instincts and killer limbs. Fortune works for the British government, and despite his gruff Cockney demeanor he has a taste for the high life that makes James Bond’s look shabby. The perks he demands for fulfilling his assignments include bottles of vintage wine so expensive they’ve earned their own column in the MI6 budget.
Fortune reports to Nathan, an M-like figure played by Cary Elwes with a tart-tongued savoir faire that makes him seem like a more literate version of the backroom operatives in the “Kingsman” films. The assignment he has for Fortune sounds suitably daunting and, in its way, MacGuffin-ish. A mysterious package, nicknamed The Handle, has been stolen with military-level muscle from a laboratory, going on the underworld market for $10 billion. Fortune has to find out what the package is (it’s a weapon, but not the weapon we think) and retrieve it.
“Operation Fortune” is a tricky movie to evoke and describe, since it interlaces the DNA of so many familiar genres and franchises. It’s a team-of-elite-spies-save-the-world adventure like the “Mission: Impossible” films. It’s a dizzying, razor-sharp action juggernaut like the “Bourne” films. It’s an intricately designed and executed caper like the “Ocean’s” movies. You may hear all that and think: So what? Those genres are more played out than not, so why do we need Guy Ritchie piggybacking on them?
Because Ritchie, working from a script he cowrote with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, has taken all of this and transformed it into a movie that’s so clever and airy yet grounded, so sparkling with devil-may-care bravado, so poised right where you want it to be — a step ahead of the audience but also leading us right along — that it gives off the charge of a great screwball comedy. It’s not just the high-velocity wit of the dialogue, though when Aubrey Plaza shows up as Sarah, a hacker with the down-and-dirty instincts of a blackmailer who can also, when it’s called for, be a drop-dead femme fatale, the brainiac wordplay shimmers like gold dust.
It’s that the movie, counting on the fact that we know our 007 and “M:I” and “Ocean’s” maneuvers, doesn’t have those slight dead spaces where the heroes’ plans get explained. “Operation Fortune” tells us just enough, treating the audience like part of the team. The movie is incredibly quick and light on its feet about laying traps, getting in and out of situations, coasting along on the lethal glitches that turn into opportunities.
In addition to Sarah, with her word-on-a-wing repartee, Fortune’s team includes JJ (Bugzy Malone), a sniper with the manners of a gentleman, as well as a wild card who has been recruited from outside the spy circuit — Danny Francesco, an American movie star who, as played by Josh Hartnett, comes off as an affectionate parody of Brad Pitt. It’s been a while since Hartnett himself looked like he was going to be a star, which never quite happened. But in “Operation Fortune” he’s lean and ageless, and he’s got the invisible self-mocking X factor the role requires.
Danny has been tapped as bait to entrap Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), a super-shady, super-weaselly, super-smart billionaire who brokers underground arms sales. He’s a big fan of Danny’s, and tried to hire him a while back to jump out of a birthday cake (which Danny said no to). Danny and Sarah, pretending to be his girlfriend, show up with Fortune, posing as Danny’s business manager, at a charity bash for war orphans that Simmonds is throwing on his yacht in Cannes. The entire goal of their infiltration is to steal Simmonds’ cell phone, yet the sequence is as elegantly orchestrated as the party in “Notorious,” and it’s all built around a kind of double mind game.
Fortune and his team are counting on Simmonds’ vanity — his desire to get close to a movie star, and his desire to flirt with Sarah, whose presence makes Danny seem that much more of a prize. The whole team is playing him. But Hugh Grant, who is the film’s secret weapon, invests Simmonds with such succulent layered panache that he’s playing them as well. Grant, with his wedge-shaped smirk of sleazy glee, evokes the halting imperiousness of Michael Caine at his most ominous, and this is a performance worthy of Michael Caine. Grant’s Simmonds is deliciously, pathologically competitive. He turns the tiniest encounter into a cat-and-mouse contest, and in doing so steals the movie.
Not that the other actors are less than ace. Statham, as he’s gotten older, has acquired an almost ghostly quality of killer-elite efficiency, and he makes Orson Fortune an operative so cunning in his fearlessness that he’s funny. Statham, a facetious nihilist, has most of the film’s fight scenes, and they’re actually quite original, so tinglingly geometric that you see just how Fortune thinks, landing each blow as the shortest distance between two points (the points being: his will and death). The film moves over to Simmonds’ villa in Turkey, where he hosts Danny and Sarah for a weekend, and what Fortune is to hand-to-hand combat Sarah is to surveillance — she’ll slip away to the powder room and tap into the world in a fractured heartbeat.
There are other characters, all vividly sketched: a crew of Ukrainian mobsters (they love Danny too), a pair of biotech billionaires who are just geeky enough to be sinister, and Fortune’s rival espionage star — a clandestine team leader named Mike (Peter Ferdinando), who is after the same thing and keeps messing up the plans. The movie, like the best “M:I” films, strikes an ideal balance of action and intrigue, with notes of debonair comedy that pay off in unexpected ways. When Simmonds, as a gift, gives Danny the candy-apple-red Mustang with white stripes that’s his favorite car he ever drove in a movie (he did his own stuntwork!), it’s guaranteed that he’ll end up commandeering the car in a getaway drive for real. But the film doesn’t suddenly turn Danny into a hyperbolic action star. He’s still Danny — a genial poser who finds the role of a lifetime in playing himself.
The script of “Operation Fortune” is a gem, allowing this to be the rare thriller that’s as driven by words as an old Hollywood movie. Yet it’s Ritchie’s direction that makes every scene vibrate. His talent is on full display, though now it’s held in perfect perspective. The Cannes yacht scene is intricate enough to rival what Tarantino brought off in “Inglourious Basterds,” and the climax, set in the power tower of those biotech moguls, spins on a reversal of expectation about one of the film’s characters that’s wily enough to be exhilarating. The sparingly used helicopter shots expand the action with an almost musical visual flair. All of this makes me want to go back and watch Guy Ritchie’s early movies again. Will I change my mind about them? Probably not. Yet with “Operation Fortune,” Ritchie rules. In this movie, he’s like Howard Hawks in overdrive. Tom Cruise, Barbara Broccoli, and everyone else in Hollywood: take heed.