So, what the heck is in the shiny alligator briefcase?
That essential question lingers over much — too much — of the running time of "Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre," Guy Ritchie's stylish but ultimately frustratingly half-baked spy caper. Everyone wants the $10 billion contents of the briefcase, but we don't know exactly who's selling, who's buying and most importantly, what's in there.
Not to stretch a metaphor, but this shiny case rather ends up becoming one for the movie itself: made of the finest materials — for example, crowd-pleasing cast members Aubrey Plaza and Hugh Grant — and hinting at sophistication and panache, while ending up as something of a head-scratcher.
Of course, for some, especially fans of Jason Statham, it will likely be enough just watching this Ritchie favorite practice his well-honed talent for hand-to-hand combat, casually dispatching a cascade of bad guys in leather jackets as the titular Orson Fortune, a perpetually annoyed, phobia-plagued, expensive wine-loving private contractor.
But it seems that Ritchie, who both co-wrote and directed, is going for something more sophisticated here. The first hint: That title. Perhaps you weren't familiar with the French term "ruse de guerre"? Well, it signifies a ruse of war, or stratagem of war, or plan or scheme … exactly what Fortune and his team need to counter the shady arms dealers, tech moguls and familiar rivals all seeking to recover The Handle, which is what they call that elusive thing everyone's fighting over.
We begin with Nathan (Cary Elwes), posh and pretty annoyed himself. The head of a covert spy agency, Nathan has been summoned by the government in London (why the graphics team felt it was necessary to specify "London, ENGLAND" is not clear) to head up a team. Why, he asks, is official intelligence not handling this? "Ah, ruse de guerre, Nathan" he's told — meaning this job needs an extra je-ne-sais-quoi.
Enter Fortune (Statham), who's vacationing in Morocco when he's told he has about two minutes to accept his new mission.
He's given two helpers, or "footmen": Sarah (Plaza) and J.J. (Bugzy Malone). The latter is good with weapons, and Sarah is a tech whiz, seemingly able to hack into anything. The ever watchable Plaza, with her trademark flat delivery and expertly doled out sass, is a highlight of this cast, in the only substantial female role. Like most of the characters, though, hers is barely fleshed out. It's also unfortunate that she's called upon to be sexy and seductive, as if this is simply the lot of any woman in an action thriller. Can't we just have a talented female tech wizard?
In any case, the team's initial target is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Grant, reuniting with Ritchie from "The Gentlemen"), who is brokering the deal. Before they show up at his glittering charity event in Cannes, though, their luxury jet makes a detour to Hollywood, to pick up their "invitation": Danny Francesco, an action movie star that Simmonds is obsessed with.
Danny is a willing accomplice — well, not really, but he's blackmailed with compromising information about his sex life. His job is to "play" himself and befriend Simmonds so the team can get to the dealer's phone. Orson will play Danny's manager, and Sarah the girlfriend — a convenient reason to get Plaza dolled up in a series of slinky outfits with up-to-there slits. "You're an actor. Act!" she orders Danny (a sweetly amusing Josh Hartnett).
Grant is, as usual, a lively presence, especially as a villain — a role he's come to relish in recent years. Alas, though the actor is obviously having loads of fun, he's been given funnier and/or more villainous material in other roles (he's nowhere near as menacing as he was, for example, as the doctor in "The Undoing"). His cockney arms dealer is yet another half-realized character, but Grant in any character role is still a winning proposition.
It's an odd paradox that this movie feels both high-minded and also at times frustratingly pedestrian. Speaking of paradoxes, Plaza's Sarah has a funny moment where she soulfully tells a minion of Simmonds, admiring the art collection he's curated, that "I'm interested in the paradox of dualistic motivation." She's just making it up, killing time, but the line, like that sleek briefcase, seems emblematic of a movie that aspires to sophistication yet in the end, doesn't yield too much substance.
"Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre," a Lionsgate release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language and violence." Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.