‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ starring Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henry Golding and Cary Elwes

April 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Alex Pettyfer, Alan Ritchson, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Henry Golding and Henry Cavill in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1942, in the United Kingdom, Fernando Po (now known as Bioko), the Canary Islands, and the Atlantic Ocean, the action film “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, a few Asian people and one Latina) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of rogues, who are secretly recruited by the U.K. government, team up with U.K. government spies in a plan to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Culture Audience: “The Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guy Ritchie, the movie’s headliners, and unimaginative action movies taking place during World War II.

Eiza González in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” could have been a superb film for history-based movies that take place during World War II. Instead, this tedious spy-and-combat clunker has bland dialogue, mediocre action scenes, and hollow main characters. There’s also gross sexism in how the token female character’s purpose is literally described as “seducer” in the movie. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is so biased and inaccurate with its machismo, there is only one woman who has a significant speaking role in this disappointing film, which diminishes or erases the large number of women who made important contributions to World War II. Out of all the cast members who have character names in the movie, only two are women, and one of them has only a few minutes of screen time.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” was written by Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Arash Amel. The movie’s screenplay is adapted from Damien Lewis’ 2015 non-fiction book “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops,” which is based on true events revealed in declassified documents. A caption in the beginning of the movie says that the story is based on former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s files that were declassified in 2016, the year after Lewis’ aforementioned book was published. This book is not to be confused with Giles Milton’s 2015 non-fiction book “Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

Ritchie has made a career out of directing male-oriented action movies, but the quality of these movies has gone downhill since his best films in the 2000s, even if the budgets for Ritchie’s movies have been noticeably higher in subsequent decades. The one time that Ritchie had a woman as the lead character in a feature film that he directed—2002’s terrible romantic drama “Swept Away,” starring Madonna, who was married to Ritchie at the time—it was a disastrous flop on every single level.

It’s unknown if the failure of “Swept Away” turned Ritchie off from ever doing a movie again where a woman is the central protagonist. However, his filmmaking track record indicates he’s only comfortable directing movies where women are the supporting characters and are usually tokens whose roles are either “wife,” “girlfriend” or “seductress,” while the male characters in Ritchie’s films get to have the most fun. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is just more of the same sexist pattern.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (which takes place in 1942) unfolds in an unnecessarily convoluted way that drags down the pace of the movie. The movie’s opening scene shows a British-owned boat in the Atlantic Ocean’s “Nazi-controlled waters” being overtaken by Nazis. The Nazi commanding officer (played by Jens Grund) coldly announces to the boat’s captured men that he usually gives detainees on a ship or boat the choice of either jumping overboard or taking their chances when the vessel is set on fire.

As the vessel is about to be destroyed by Nazi arson, the captured boat occupants fight back and kill the Nazis. After they defeat these villains, they blow up the Nazi ship nearby. Who are these men with almost superhero-like fighting skills? They are a motley crew of rogues and renegades who will soon be recruited by the Churchill-led U.K. government to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. 

And all of these “heroes” happen to unrealisitically look like extremely good-looking actors. The group’s leader is a dashing Brit named Gus March-Phillips (played by Henry Cavill), who does his fair share of posing and smirking throughout the movie. Gus is the type of leader who doesn’t pass up the chance to make wisecracking quips, but the “jokes” in this movie mostly fall flat. These “jokes” might elicit a few short chuckles but nothing that will turn into sustained laugh-out-loud moments.

Gus has a group of guys he likes to work with and who all have shady pasts like he does. They include Anders Lassen (played Alan Ritchson), who is described as a Danish “legend with a bow and arrow” and an “uncontrollable mad dog”; Freddy Alvarez (played by Henry Golding), who is a convicted arsonist; and Henry Hayes (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an Irishman whose brother was killed in a U-boat sunk by the Nazis. The characters of Gus March-Phillips and Anders Lassen are based on real people with the same names, although the real Gus March-Phillipps had a slightly different spelling of his last name. Henry Hayes is based on the real-life Graham Hayes. Freddy Alvarez is a character fabricated for this movie.

Another member of this rebellious group is Geoffrey Appleyard (played by Alex Pettyfer), a Brit who is described as “a master planner, a master survivor, a master surgeon” and “an expert with a blade.” Geoffrey Appleyard is also based on a real person with the same name. In this movie, Geoffrey isn’t quite the master planner he is described as, because he’s gotten himself captured in a Nazi prison in the Canary Islands’ La Palma. Guess who’s going to break him out of this prison?

Before this prison breakout scene happens, there are some choppily edited scenes showing how this “ministry” was formed during World War II. Despite Gus’ tension-filled and rocky history with the U.K. government, Prime Minister Churchill (played by a miscast Rory Kinnear) wants Gus to lead a secret group of operatives who will be on a mission to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean, near Fernando Po, an Equatorial Guinea island which is now known as Bioko. 

Gus is summoned to Special Operations Executive headquarters in London, where he meets with Prime Minister Churchill and four other people who are in this office meeting: Brigadier Gubbins, nicknamed M (played by Cary Elwes); spy Ian Fleming (played by Freddie Fox); spy Marjorie Stewart (played by Eiza González); and spy Richard Heron (played by Babs Olusanmokun), who is called Heron in the movie. Brigadier Gubbins is based on the real-life major-general Colin McVean Gubbins. The characters of Ian Fleming and Marjorie Stewart are also based on real people. Heron is a character who was fabricated for the movie.

One of the worst things about this movie is that it doesn’t tell much about Ian Fleming, who would later become famous in real life as the author of James Bond novels. In “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” Ian Fleming has a blank personality. Marjorie is described as an “actress, singer and seducer” with German Jewish heritage on her mother’s side of the family. Heron’s main claim to fame is that he throws great parties. Marjorie and Heron are the spies who have the most contact with Gus and his gang.

The mission is so secretive, most British military officials don’t know about it. Therefore, people on the mission are warned that they not only must avoid being captured by Nazis, they also must avoid being arrested by British officials. Brigadier Gubbins is stereotypically a bureaucrat type who inevitably clashes with the more freewheeling Gus. Brigadier Gubbins is supposed to be Gus’ direct supervisor on this mission, but Gus naturally resists this authority.

It should be noted that “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is not as integrated as it appears to be. For a great deal of the movie, especially in the first half, Margorie and Heron (who is black) work together and do not interact with the other people on the team. It’s an off-putting way of showing “let’s put the woman and black person over there, and everyone else can go over here.” When Margorie and Heron eventually do work directly with Gus and his group, it looks very contrived for the movie.

Margorie had a fascinating story in real life, including a marriage to Gus that is only mentioned in the movie’s epilogue. Unfortunately, in this movie, Margorie is reduced to being a “sexpot sidekick” who occasionally uses a gun. Fans of González can at least take comfort in knowing that González does the best that she can with a limited role. And for what it’s worth, Marjorie has the best costumes in the movie, even if those costumes predictably include dresses where she has to show her breast cleavage. It should come as no surprise that Marjorie has been tasked with seducing a Nazi German official named Henrich Luhr (played Til Schweiger), who has valuable information about the U-boats that the hero team wants to sink.

Heron is suave and has many friends, but his role in the movie is to provide “the entertainment,” while other people do the most difficult planning for the mission. There’s a messy section of the movie where Heron has arranged two parties happening at the same time: a costume party for Nazi officers (where Marjorie dresses as Cleopatra, and she convinces Heinrich to dress as Julius Caesar) and a “beerfest” for Nazi soldiers. The purpose of both parties is to keep a certain dock mostly unguarded so that the “ministry” can complete its mission.

Gus and his gang of rogues (in other words, the characters in the movie who get to do the most action) are unfortunately written in generic ways where very little is told about who they are. Hardly anything is shown that proves Gus’ cronies have unique and distinct personalities, so the cast members act accordingly. Gus is not as charismatic as he thinks he is.

Likewise, the government officials also have lackluster depictions. At one point, Prime Minister Churchill says to subordinates about this mission against the Nazis: “I need you to air raid their ships … Hitler is not playing by the rules, and neither are we.” Yawn.

Kinnear is a skilled actor, but he can’t overcome the obvious flaw of looking too young to portray Prime Minister Churchill during this period of time. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” takes place in 1942, when Churchill was 67 or 68 years old. Kinnear was in his mid-40s when he portrayed Churchill in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” The filmmakers didn’t bother to make Kinnear look like the same age as Churchill was during this period of time. This age inaccuracy doesn’t ruin the movie, because Churchill is not a central character in this film, but it’s a noticeable flaw.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” has a tone-deaf way of glossing over a lot of Nazi bigotry. The movie has an attitude of “let’s not show any of the racist and religious hate that Nazis inflicted on people” in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”—as if it’s assumed it’s sufficient enough to just label the Nazis as the antagonists. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is not a Holocaust movie, and it doesn’t have to be a lecture about the evils of Nazis’ hate, but it’s not a very responsibly made history-based film showing the damage of Nazi prejudice and hate crimes. For example, there’s a scene on a train where a uniformed Nazi has a cordial conversation with Margorie and Heron. In real life, a uniformed Nazi probably would not have been as polite and would most likely have tried to assert some type of bigoted superiority over these obviously non-Aryan people.

As for the action sequences, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” doesn’t do anything spectacular. There isn’t even a credible attempt at building suspense. It’s just a “checklist/countdown” movie that goes from one location to the next, until the predictable conclusion. (“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” was filmed in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Türkiye, also known as Turkey.)

The film editing isn’t very impressive. There are too many scenes that are meant to show how “globetrotting” this movie is, but all that’s shown in several (not all) international scenes are a few minutes of dialogue that didn’t really need to be in the movie. The dialogue in this film is mostly forgettable, which is why the movie’s characters come across as cardboard personalities instead of authentic people. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” has an attractive and talented cast, but putting them in various locations with a flimsy story does not magically turn this shallow mediocrity into a well-made or compelling movie.

Lionsgate will release “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in U.S. cinemas on April 19. 2024. Sneak previews of the movie were shown in select U.S. cinemas on April 8, 2024, and on April 13, 2024. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” will be released on digital and VOD on may 10, 2024.

Review: ‘Ordinary Angels’ (2024), starring Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis and Tamala Jones

February 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hilary Swank and Alan Ritchson in “Ordinary Angels” (Photo by Allen Fraser/Lionsgate)

“Ordinary Angels” (2024)

Directed by Jon Gunn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993 and 1994, the dramatic film “Ordinary Angels (inspired by real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An alcoholic hair stylist feels compelled to help a 5-year-old girl, who is dying from a liver disease and whose family can’t afford her medical expenses, which include a liver transplant that’s needed to save her life.

Culture Audience: “Ordinary Angels” will appeal primarily to fans of star Hilary Swank and faith-based movies that over-exaggerate true stories.

Alan Ritchson and Emily Mitchell in “Ordinary Angels” (Photo by Allen Fraser/Lionsgate)

“Ordinary Angels” is supposed to be based on a true story, but it has plot holes and a fluffy fantasy that all you need to erase medical expenses is a woman who can make $435,000 in hospital bills disappear with sweet talking and blueberry muffins as gifts. There is literally a scene where the protagonist convinces a hospital to cancel this debt by asking a hospital administrator in a meeting how it would feel if the administrator had a sick daughter and couldn’t pay her medical bills. That’s just one of many eye-rolling “only in a movie” scenarios that “Ordinary Angels” tries to shove down viewers’ throats and expect people to swallow as the whole truth.

It’s condescending and gross pandering that will only work with people who want to ignore or forget that medical care in places without universal health insurance has disturbing inequalities for people who aren’t in certain demographics. The end of the movie also has a hokey “race against time” during a blizzard that looks like a real event was very exaggerated in the movie for dramatic purposes. And in other parts of the movie, the truth and reality are over-simplified in order to manipulate certain emotions out of viewers.

Directed by Jon Gunn, “Ordinary Angels” was written by Kelly Fremon Craig and Meg Tilly. The movie takes place in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1993 and 1994. (“Ordinary Angels” was actually filmed in Manitoba, Canada.) In other words, this story took place before the existence of the Internet and social media, which are now common ways for people to raise funds for medical expenses. And the story also takes place before the Affordable Care Act existed in the United States, because the family experiencing the child medical crisis in this story did not have health insurance at the time.

The protagonist of “Ordinary Angels” has the disease of alcoholism and is estranged from her young adult son (her only child) because of her alcoholism. However, she is presented in this unrealistic-looking movie as someone who is a crusading angel in all other aspects of her life, where everything conveniently falls into place because she’s able to talk her way into getting what she wants. On her road to redemption, she has chosen a dying girl to be her obsessive “pet project.”

“Ordinary Angels” begins in 1993, by showing a talkative divorcée named Sharon Stevens (played by Hilary Swank) at a bar, doing something that she’s done many times in her life: Get drunk and call attention to herself with her drunken antics. She wakes up with a hangover and finds out that her boss/close friend Rose (played by Tamala Jones) brought her home from the bar the night before, because Sharon was too drunk to get home on her own. Rose owns the hair salon Shear Elegance, where Sharon works as a hair stylist.

Rose sternly lectures Sharon about this drunken blackout that Sharon has had: “This can’t happen again. I’m officially worried.” Shortly after this incident, Rose persuades Sharon to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where Sharon defiantly declares to everyone: “I’m not an alcoholic. I’m just a pissed-off hairdresser with a splitting headache and an annoying friend.”

Swank has done this type of “sassy with grit” character many times before (see most of the movies where she’s had a starring role), so there’s nothing new or surprising about her performance. Just like the other performances in “Ordinary Angels,” it’s serviceable and predictable. “Ordinary Angels” is a faith-based movie, so expect to see a lot of references to God and praying. That’s not what’s offensive about this movie. What’s offensive is how it relentlessly insults viewers’ intelligence about how medical crises can be solved in the real world.

After leaving the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Sharon sees a front-page newspaper story about a 35-year-old mother named Theresa Schmitt (played by Amy Acker, shown in flashbacks), who has died of Wegener’s disease and has a daughter who needs a liver transplant. (The real Theresa Schmitt actually died of the Wegener’s disease in 1992, at the age of 29.) Theresa’s surviving family members include her husband Ed Schmitt (played by Alan Ritchson) and their two daughters: 5-year-old Michelle Schmitt (played by Emily Mitchell) and Ashley Schmitt (played by Skywalker Hughes), who’s about 7 or 8 years old.

Both children are cute and adorable, but the movie unrealistically shows them as having no personality flaws. These two siblings also don’t get into any arguments and don’t show any rivalry with each other, which is another example of how phony this movie looks. “Ordinary Angels” completely ignores what can happen when a sick child in the family gets almost all the attention and any other children in the family might start to feel neglected or resentful. In real life, Michelle was 3 years old when she needed a transplant, but the movie made her 5 years old, because a 5-year-old is more capable than a 3-year-old of saying precocious lines of “cute kid” dialogue, as Michelle does in this movie.

Michelle has a rare liver disease called biliary atresia. Ed, who works as an independent-contractor roofer, is overwhelmed with debts of more than $435,000 in medical bills for Michelle and his late wife Theresa. He has these medical bills because he does not have health insurance for himself or his family. Ed also has the burden of other expenses for himself and his family. After the death of Theresa, Ed’s retired mother Barbara Schmitt (played by Nancy Travis) has moved into the home to help Ed with Michelle and Ashley.

Sharon sees the news story about ailing Michelle and immediately feels like she wants to do something to help the Schmitt family. Sharon starts by going to Theresa’s funeral. And when Ed asks her who she is, Sharon awkwardly explains that she’s a stranger who wants to give her condolences. Ed uncomfortably thanks her and thinks that will be the last he’ll see of Sharon. But there would be no “Ordinary Angels” movie if that was the last time Ed saw Sharon.

After the funeral, Sharon throws herself full-force into raising money for the Schmitt family. She has a fundraising event at the hair salon. She hands out flyers. She tells everyone she knows about the fundraiser. The fundraiser gets more than $3,250. She then goes over to the Schmitt home to deliver the money, which Ed reluctantly takes, because (as the movie repeats often, to irritating levels) Ed doesn’t feel right about taking charity from this lady whom he thinks is kind of a mess.

Barbara is more open to accepting this help. She’s the one who persuades Ed to invite Sharon into the house for dinner when Sharon delivers the fundraising money as a surprise. “Ordinary Angels” makes it clear that Sharon does not have the ulterior motive of trying to have a romantic relationship with physically attractive Ed, who is still deep in grief over the loss of Theresa. However, Sharon inserts herself into the Schmitt family’s life like a volunteer nanny/business manager/life coach, including helping take care of Michelle and Ashley; sorting out Ed’s bills and explaining his finances to him; and giving career tips and pep talks to Ed when he comes up with an idea of how he can make more money as a roofer.

Sharon even accompanies Ed to a sales pitch meeting with a potential employer, and she speaks for Ed like she’s a publicist. At one point in the story, Ed privately comes right out and tells overzealous Sharon that he resents all the help she’s giving because he thinks he should be the one to give the most help to his family. Sharon just smiles and says that Ed can just keep on resenting while she keeps on helping. It’s a very glib answer that glosses over the way that Sharon has fixated so fast on this family.

Yes, Sharon is a do-gooder, but the way she goes about it is kind of stalker-ish. There’s a scene where she calls the hospital where Ed owes money and pretends to be his accountant sister (who doesn’t really exist), just so she can find out how much money Ed owes for his medical bills. (It’s how she finds out he owes $435,000.) It’s a huge invasion of privacy on Sharon’s part, not to mention a HIPAA violation for the hospital to give out this information, but the person on the other line tells Sharon this information, because the movie wants people to believe that “ordinary angel” Sharon is who she is and can be dishonest and violate people’s privacy in order to get what she wants.

Sharon’s overly perky and ultra-helpful persona is a mask for some deep-seated issues in her own personal life. A scene in the movie shows Sharon going to a bar where her musician son Derek (played by Dempsey Bryk) is setting up some musical equipment before his band’s performance. Sharon seems to want to make amends for whatever she did to hurt him, but Derek’s hostile reaction makes it obvious he’s not interested in a reconciliation at that moment. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Sharon’s ex-husband (who is also a musician and not seen in the movie) abandoned Sharon and Derek when Derek was a child.

It’s unclear when Sharon became an alcoholic, but this alcoholism caused her to be a parent who did a lot of emotional damage to Derek. The movie hints at but never goes into details about this abuse, because those details would ruin the movie’s narrative that Sharon is an “ordinary angel” who wants to redeem herself. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that one of the main reasons why Sharon is doing this charity work is out of guilt for her own failures as a parent.

One of the other reasons why Derek is estranged from Sharon is because she won’t admit that she’s an alcoholic and won’t get help for this disease. Derek knows that Sharon has been spending a lot of time helping the Schmitt family. He makes a cutting remark, which is one of the best lines in an otherwise corny movie. Derek says to Sharon about Sharon’s obsession with helping Michelle: “That girl, I feel sorry for her, not because she’s sick but because she’s counting on you for help.”

Sharon is able to overcome big obstacles with some very trite montages of her calling up people or by going to people’s offices, usually with blueberry muffins as gifts. At one point in the movie, viewers might ask themselves, “Does Sharon even work at her salon job anymore?” That question is answered in another part of the movie, when Rose gets upset with Sharon for not showing up to work for weeks, because Sharon wants to spend her time helping the Schmitts. Most people in the real world would get fired over this chronic absenteeism, but “ordinary angel” Sharon guilt-trips Rose into not firing her, because she lectures Rose by saying Rose should be more understanding of Sharon’s charity crusade.

Perhaps one of the worst things about “Ordinary Angels” is how it portrays Ed as a gruff and reluctantly grateful parent who bizarrely refuses to accept any more donations at a time when Michelle needed the money the most for a liver transplant. At this point in the movie, he comes across as a selfish parent who has put his own personal pride over his child’s health. It’s completely heinous, but the movie excuses Ed’s parental attitude problem. It just becomes another plot device for “ordinary angel” Sharon to show Ed that she’s more generous and more capable of solving his family’s problems than he is.

There’s also an unspoken narrative in the movie that the “Ordinary Angels” filmmakers don’t want you to think about: Cute kids with deadly diseases are more likely to get help and donations from strangers, compared to other people with deadly diseases who aren’t cute kids. Does that make the lives of those “other people” less of a priority for people like Sharon Stevens? According to the way Sharon acts in this movie, the answer is “yes.” The harsh reality is that this “ordinary angel” was very selective in whom she wanted to give all of this help to that went above and beyond what most people in her situation would do.

It’s obvious that the filmmakers and stars of the movie made “Ordinary Angels” as an inspirational film with the intention to win awards. (There’s nothing Oscar-worthy about this movie though.) “Ordinary Angels” does a disservice to people who are going through real-life medical crises by warping the truth and exaggerating real circumstances to make this story look like a fairy tale. The only award that “Ordinary Angels” deserves is Most Likely to Give False Hope.

Lionsgate will release “Ordinary Angels” in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Dark Web: Cicada 3301,’ starring Jack Kesy, Conor Leslie and Alan Ritchson

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ron Funches, Conor Leslie and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301”

Directed by Alan Ritchson

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bartender who’s a secret computer hacker uncovers a Dark Web secret society of rich criminals called Cicada 3301 and is pressured by law enforcement to infiltrate this secret society.

Culture Audience: “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a painfully unfunny film that struggles to find anything resembling a coherent plot.

Alan Ritchson, Andreas Apergis and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Just like the title of this movie, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is vapid and badly conceived. It tries desperately to be a wacky caper film, but the movie’s convoluted plot is filled with cheesy comedy that includes a homophobic fixation on depicting gay male sexuality as something to shamefully ridicule. Almost all of the characters in this movie are unappealing. Good luck to anyone who wastes time watching this incoherent drivel until the very end. Even the movie’s mid-credits scene looks like a throwaway.

Directed by Alan Ritchson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joshua Montcalm, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” has a misguided concept that can be described as “Mr. Robot” meets “National Treasure” meets an “Austin Powers” movie. The protagonist of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a computer hacker who’s a loner, but he goes on a treasure hunt as a wisecracking spy for the government. It’s even more cringeworthy than it sounds. At 105 minutes, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” feels like much longer, as viewers have to watch a lot of nonsense, and most of it still won’t make much sense by the end of the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” takes place in an unnamed North American city. The movie was filmed in Canada and has a mixture of American and Canadian actors, but nothing in the movie looks specific to the U.S. or Canada. The name of the federal agency that the law enforcement people work for is also left out of the movie. There’s a lot of things in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” that are purposely vague, mostly due to terrible screenwriting and direction.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” opens with a scene of Connor Black (played by Jack Kesy) in a castle, pointing a gun at someone in a study room, uploading something on a computer in the room, and then destroying the computer. Connor then climbs out the window and over a wall. Suddenly, there’s an explosion that hurls Connor backward. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to later on, to explain how Connor got into this situation.

As the movie shows Connor falling in slow motion, he’s heard commenting in a voiceover: “Believe it or not, I’m falling through the sky like an apple over Newton’s head. Things have been a little fuzzy ever since.” It’s one of the many examples of how tonally off-kilter this movie is. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a mindless action flick, but it also makes these pseudo-intellectual references where people have to know that Isaac Newton is being referenced in this bizarre attempt at a joke.

Throughout the movie, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what type of audience they want for this movie: Is it the people who like the complex and edgy hacker drama of “Mr. Robot”? Is it the people who like artifact-finding adventures like “National Treasure”? Or is it the people who like deliberately zany spy comedies like “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”?

There is some overlap in these audiences, but not much. And the result is that “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a tonal mess. Connor Black is written as a strange amalgamation of all three male protagonists in “Mr. Robot,” “National Treasure” and “Austin Powers.” It’s no wonder that Connor is as annoying and confused as he is throughout the movie.

Early on in the movie, it’s shown that Connor is now a prisoner who is testifying on his behalf at a judge’s hearing. The “adventure” scenes of the movie are really supposed to be what happened that led up to Connor being arrested. This movie is so badly made that this scene doesn’t look like it was filmed in a courtroom. It looks like it was filmed in a library or a university meeting room with three tables placed in the room.

At the “defense” table is Connor, who is in a prisoner’s uniform, with his hands and feet cuffed in chains. And he doesn’t have a lawyer with him. Sitting at the “prosecution” table are five men: two attorneys (the one who speaks is played by Joe Bostick) representing the prosecution, as well as the three government agents who offered $5 million to Connor to find a darknet secret society called Cicada 3301. The government agents are leader Mike Croft (played by Al Sapienza), Agent Carver (played by “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” director Ritchson) and Agent Sullivan (played by Andreas Apergis), who all have contempt for Connor.

Sitting at the third table that faces the other two tables is a panel of three judges: Judge Mary Collins (played by Victoria Snow), who does most of the talking; Judge Walters (played by Rothaford Gray); and Judge Bates (played by Marvin Karon). The judges ask Connor to tell his side of the story, which leads to the flashback scenes in the movie. During his “testimony” Connor is very rude to the agents, and he often gets up from the table in a disruptive manner. Connor and the agents also frequently interrupt each other.

Connor sometimes distorts the details in his “testimony,” by telling lies that Agent Carver is a closeted and horny gay man who’s attracted to Connor. For example, there’s a “fantasy” scene from Connor’s imagination where Agent Carter sexually licks Connor on the face. And in another “fantasy” scene, Agent Carter has a dildo strapped on his head after being in an “orgy room” with another man.

Telling these fabrications is Connor’s way of trying to humiliate Agent Carver, who gets upset every time Connor creates a false story about Agent Carter trying to seduce Connor and other men. These fantasies are depicted in the movie for laughs, but it’s not funny to use real or perceived homosexuality as a way to shame someone. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” over-relies on these so-called “gay jokes” to the point where viewers have to wonder what kind of bigoted hangups these filmmakers have about gay men.

Connor is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant jerk whom the filmmakers want audiences to think is what you’re supposed to be if you’re a wisecracking, “no filter” action hero. He’s a bachelor in his early 30s who lives alone and works as a bartender. But he’s also a computer whiz who has a photographic memory. And when the government recruits a reluctant Connor to be a spy, he suddenly has combat skills that aren’t really explained in the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” uses an annoying visual technique of showing numbers and images on screen, to depict how Connor’s photographic memory works in his brain. The movie never explains why Connor is a bartender instead of working in a computer-related job. Maybe it’s to set up this clumsy plot development in the beginning of the story where Connor starts looking for Cicada 3301. He’s enlisted to be a government spy when government officials find out that he’s close to discovering Cicada 3301, and they want Connor to lead the government to this secret society.

Twenty-nine days before he’s shown falling out from a castle ledge, Connor is at the restaurant/bar where he works. He sees a rude customer give Connor’s waitress co-worker Lori (played by Linnea Currie-Roberts) a measly 50 cents as a tip for serving about three or four people. Before the customer leaves with his dinner companions, Connor steps in and confronts the customer about the insulting tip.

The customer, whose name is William J. Edwards III (played by Benjamin Sutherland), is unapologetic and angrily flicks a lit cigarette at Connor. This triggers Connor to a childhood memory of his abusive father (played by Patrick Garrow) flicking a lit cigarette at him. The movie has more of these flashback memories of Connor’s troubled relationship with his father. (Tomaso Sanelli portrays Connor as a child.) Connor responds to the cigarette-throwing, stingy customer by getting into a fist fight with him.

Later, when he’s at home in his dingy apartment and nursing his bruised knuckles, Connor decides to get revenge on William, the customer he fought with in the bar. Connor remembers William’s full name and goes on his desktop computer to log on to the Dark Web. Connor hacks into William’s Bitcoin and credit card accounts to mess up his credit, and he sends a computer virus to William’s email.

While surfing the Dark Web, Connor stumbles onto mysterious files from an entity calling itself Cicada 3301 that promises a huge treasure worth a fortune, for people who can crack Cicada 3301’s puzzle codes and clues that will lead to the treasure. The group’s logo is a cicada. And it’s implied that whatever “treasure” is being offered is illegal.

Connor is intrigued, but his first attempt at solving a Cicada 3301 puzzle results in him getting a message from Cicada 3301 telling him that he failed the test because he’s not smart enough. This insult causes Connor to get so angry that he smashes a beer bottle, but some of the beer spills onto the computer tower and short-circuits the hard drive. Connor is now more determined than ever to find out who’s behind Cicada 3301 and how to get some of the promised treasure.

Connor needs the money because he’s very close to being evicted from his apartment. Connor has already been served an eviction notice. His deaf landlord Mr. Costa (played by Anselmo DeSousa) threatens to change the apartment’s locks if Connor doesn’t come up with the money. Connor promises that he will have the money by the next day, but even the landlord know that’s a lie.

Connor seems to be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), because he understands everything that Mr. Costa is saying just through hand signs. (The words hover over Mr. Costa’s head instead of appearing on screen as regular captions.) It’s never explained how or why Connor as ASL communication skills, just like it’s never explained why Connor works in a low-paying bartender job, even though he has advanced-level computer information technology skills.

Because the story in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is so jumbled, it throws in a precocious, foul-mouthed kid, and then makes this character disappear for no good reason. She’s a 10-year-old named Sophia (played by Alyssa Cheatham), who lives in the same apartment building as Connor. Sophia is first seen in the movie cursing out Connor for being late with his rent. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Sophia has a single mother (played by Quancetia Hamilton), who spends long hours working away from home. Therefore, Sophie and Connor hang out together a lot, with Connor as Sophia’s unofficial babysitter.

Connor seems to be aware of how odd it might look for a man his age to be spending so much time with a girl who’s not a family member. And so, when he and Sophia go to the library to do some research, there are some moronic jokes made about pedophilia. Connor doesn’t have the money to fix his computer, so he has to use Sophia’s computer or a computer at the library.

While at the library, he meets a sarcastic and pretty library assistant in her 20s named Gwen (played by Conor Leslie), who predictably ends up helping him with this Cicada 3301 hunt. Gwen becomes Connor’s more level-headed sidekick/accomplice. Gwen and Connor have the type of sexual-tension banter that indicates he’s very attracted to her.

But Gwen plays guessing games with Connor about her sexuality. In one scene, Gwen tells Connor that she’s a lesbian. In another scene, Gwen kisses Connor in a romantic way. In another scene, she tells him that she “goes both ways.” In other words, she’s bisexual or queer.

“Cicada 3301” is annoyingly preoccupied with portraying queerness as something to be ridiculed or used as a a homophobic punchline. The third member of this “National Treasure” wannabe trio is Connor’s best friend Avi (played by Ron Funches), who needs a lot of convincing to go on this Cicada 3301 treasure hunt. Avi is used later in the story as sexual bait to flirt with a museum front-desk attendant who’s openly gay, so that Connor and Gwen can sneak into the museum’s book archives while Avi serves as a distraction. All the stereotypical over-the-top gay male mannerisms are used in this scene, such as high-pitched squeals and hand fluttering.

Avi is a college professor of art history who becomes Connor’s reluctant recruit to help solve Cicada 3301’s puzzles, which require extensive knowledge of art history. Avi, who likes to wear bow ties and blazers, is the type of eccentric whose idea of fun is to play chess with old men in a park. Funches portrays Avi as someone with flamboyance and of vague sexuality, although Avi seems to be initially attracted to Gwen. Toward the end of the movie, Avi gets a female love interest named Shauna (played by Jess Salgueiro), whose presence is almost like an afterthought, as if to let viewers know that Avi really isn’t gay.

Avi likes to make cupcakes, and the movie depicts Avi’s interest in cupcakes as “effeminate.” Avi also has the role of the high-maintenance “scaredy cat”/worrier of this Cicada 3301-hunting trio. It’s just another reason for Avi to have more diva-like posturing in the movie, to try to make him the frequent butt of the movie’s not-very-funny jokes.

A lot of the movie consists of Connor, Gwen and Avi gathering clues and solving puzzles. There’s some gibberish about William Blake art, as well as clues that suggest that Cicada 3301 is an Illumniati-type of group. In one preposterous scene, Cicada 3301 has rigged an entire set of street lights to blink out a message in Morse code. Connor conveniently knows Morse Code, so he deciphers the message.

And Connor has some visions that often don’t make any sense. In one of these visions, his 10-year-old neighbor Sophia is seen being taken out of her home on a gurney, with a sheet over her body, as if she’s dead. Her mother is shown wailing next to the gurney. Sophia is never seen in the movie again, nor is it ever explained why Connor had that vision. That gives you an idea how sloppy this movie’s screenplay is.

Connor, Gwen and Avi go through some more shenanigans that eventually lead them to a castle, where Cicada 3301 is having an orgy party that’s trying to go for an “Eyes Wide Shut” masquerade vibe. It goes without saying that there are people in this movie who wear animal masks—and not because it’s Halloween. There’s someone at the party named Phillip Dubois (played by Kris Holden-Ried), whose purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is. And there are a few twists toward the end of the film that aren’t very clever and aren’t much of a surprise.

The cast members’ performances, which are mediocre, aren’t the main problem in this shoddily made film. The screenplay and direction are the weakest links. At one point in the movie, Gwen says to Connor: “Are you always this grating? It’s like living sandpaper, man!” Ironically, that’s a perfect description for “Dark Web: Cicada 3301.”

Lionsgate released “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.

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