Film Review – The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Spies are in. From Kingsman: The Secret Service, to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to the next James Bond installment Spectre, for all intents and purposes, the spy genre is back. So why not resurrect a classic franchise from the decade that started it all, in hopes of a new franchise hit that can snuggle right in there with all the aforementioned blockbusters? Welcome to the game Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Back during the 1960s, spies were all the rage. Actor Patrick McGoohan premiered in the television show Danger Man in 1960, only to go on to the cult spy series The Prisoner in 1967. Sean Connery took on the iconic role of James Bond in 1962’s Dr. No, while Peter Graves led the Impossible Mission Force in the Mission: Impossible series in 1966. There was even the comedic spy parody Get Smart in 1965. But, in 1964 Robert Vaughn and David McCallum took to the television screen as heartthrob, international spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively, who from either sides of the Iron Curtain fought the evil forces of THRUSH from world domination.
Ritchie’s version of U.N.C.L.E. (which incidentally stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement) takes at least one of its smart queues from the original television show and aptly sets itself in the 1960s, right in the middle of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia. A standout feature for the original show, its two main stars where from opposing countries united in their efforts to stop a bigger threat of globally organized crime. Whereas most spy shows featured an Us versus Them mentality, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sought a middle ground with our most immediate allies.
When the new movie begins, Solo (Henry Cavill) is working for the CIA under a plea deal from a lengthy sentence for theft, while Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is an agent for the KGB. Through a series of expository chase scenes and stylized, truncated action, Solo and Kuryakin are working against each other when their governments task them to team up under the leadership of a British agent named Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant) to stop a secret organization (sadly not named THRUSH, at least in this movie), lead by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Along the way the agents employ the help of Gabby Taylor (Alicia Vikander), whose father is a scientist gone missing under the employ of Vinciguerra.
For most of its nearly two-hour running time, characters swagger, look cool, and talk slick while shot from low angles in colorful light. Ritchie’s movie, despite its one sentence setup, resembles very little of the original show. To its credit though, that’s okay. Instead of a hard-edged adaptation, or comedic parody, Ritchie is aiming for a stylized good time in the vein of Italian, spy, exploitation films that sprouted up in the wake of the 60s’ boom. Films like Mario Bava‘s Danger: Diabolik (1968), were all about accentuating pop-cool through color, sets and attitude.
Little story is to be found both then and here, and that’s where things suffer. Luckily Ritchie smartly cast Cavill as lead hero Solo, whose bon vivant presence vibrates a swagger between used car salesman and ladies man. It doesn’t help that his chiseled jaw good looks and swollen physique add all the more to the character. Like McCallum’s Kuryakin, Hammer also plays at a stereotypical Russian accent, but for some reason has an attachment to a cap that I think is suppose to help lend character to his character. Vikander helps carry the enjoyable mood of the movie, while Debicki plays a great villain who manages to exist in both an empathetic and nihilistic state; a very subtle performance that lends its nuance to something noteworthy.
The only drawback to the 1960s setting is its casual sexist behavior that seems to think it’s dictated by the period environment. While nothing too egregious transpires it’s still unfortunate that the movie’s stylized delivery makes these things a lingering aspect of its presentation. Through many different attempts at adaptation, the movie at one time was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, with George Clooney in the role of Solo, there many different ways this could’ve gone. And while I’m typically not a fan of Ritchie’s over-stylized direction and stripped down substance, he seems to show both a maturity through restraint, while also creating a visually stimulating spy movie that seems like it shouldn’t work but does. In fact, I had more fun watching this then I did Mission: Impossible 5.