Movie Review – Man From UNCLE, The
– Summary –
Director : Guy Ritchie
Year Of Release : 2015
Principal Cast : Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, David Menken, Simona Caparrini, Christian Berkel.
Approx Running Time : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.
Another television series turned into a Hollywood movie thanks to the tidal swell of mining classic product and turning it into clever, meta-slavish modern entertainment; The Man From UNCLE boasts a solid cast, a director with proven action chops, and a slick, hugely cool 60’s aesthetic, and yet it can’t seem to muster the dead-on insanity we’ve come to expect from Guy Ritchie. Oh sure, it’s clever enough, and contains the full gamut of Ritchie’s particular visual tics and peculiarities, but there’s a distinct blandness to the director’s ubiquitous style this time up to bat, and it can’t save the film from being simply average, when the pieces would normally have added up to so much more.
Based on the mid-60’s television series bearing the same name, The Man From UNCLE is a co-creation of one-time James Bond inventor Ian Fleming and Sam Rolfe, with a more interesting dual dynamic permeating this crashing of continental extremes – Napoleon Solo (Man Of Steel’s Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer, with a flawless Russian accent) play CIA and KGB spies respectively, sent after the daughter (Alicia Vikander) of a former Nazi collaborator, Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), now US sympathizer, who has been kidnapped by a couple of Nazi sympathisers – Victoria Vinciaguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband Alexander (Luca Calvani).
Although well produced and deftly directed, The Man From UNCLE is plagued by the kind of excess a few of Guy Ritchie’s films have endured, particularly the second Sherlock Holmes movie. There’s an abundance of overly clever plotting here, masquerading as espionage-y tomfoolery and audience manipulation, and your endurance of this particular cleverness will rely solely on your appreciation for the chemistry between the two leading men. Both Cavill and Hammer do solid work, although as with many films of this ilk the characters they play are merely caricatures, and not real people at all, making it hard to really commit to liking them beyond some silly faces, some smart dialogue, and some dashing 60’s couture. The Man From UNCLE is stylistic fantasy, and it could be argued that depth of character or a sense of realism aren’t to be sought here, but the film’s frothy playfulness isn’t quite as succinct or as enjoyable as Ritchie seems to think it is.
The plot is a zippy little affair, the MacGuffin being a duo of nuclear warheads built with new technology that could change the course of the Cold War, with both the CIA and the KGB forced to work together to achieve a good outcome, but always wary of the others’ motives. This dynamic runs throughout the film, and the misdirection and diversionary tactics employed by the script and by Ritchie’s direction are amenable to a simplistic, idealised depiction of the genre – this isn’t modern Bond, this is Connery Bond-esque stuff, with more than a few side-eye chuckles sprinkled between the narrative conniptions. Ritchie, together with Lionel Wigram, have crafted a film that taps into the paranoia and devil-may-care sub-genre of spy films from this period, and thanks to seamless period details including some superb costuming, the film at least looks and feels like a clone of early Bond.
You’d be hard pressed to fault the cast either; current Superman, Henry Cavill, is as square jawed and effortlessly debonair as any superspy agent, with one hell of a name to boot – Napoleon Solo is the kind of moniker you’d use to pick up ladies at a comic-book convention, and here he wears it like a silk suit. Armie Hammer’s performance as Illya is perhaps less effective, what with his rage-induces bouts of violence and a preponderance to overuse his Russian heritage to his disadvantage, but both Hammer and Cavill have a nice time sharing the screen and come across as equal-share heroes by the end of the film. Alicia Vikander, the rising superstar from films such as The Seventh Son and Ex Machina, has a blast as Gaby Teller, the seemingly innocent female mechanic rescued from East Berlin (in the film’s terrific opening sequence) who isn’t always as she seems. Vikander never puts a foot wrong, and occasionally out-acts her more famous co-stars. Bit-parts to Hugh Grant (as a department head of MI6), Jared Harris (as Solo’s CIA handler) and a prominent Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby and Everest) bring the roster out a bit with talent, and Ritchie’s sublime use of his cinematic vernacular remains as appealing as ever.
But there’s something wrong with this film, and I’m unable to really put my finger on it with any solidity. For all the energy and fun and high-octane action scenes, as well as the film’s undercurrent of humour, The Man From UNCLE just feels tepid a lot of the time, as if it’s the kind of film Ritchie tosses off on a whim while waiting for other, better projects to come his way. I doubt that’s the case, but that’s the feeling here, an indifference to the characters (and the outcome, mainly) that permeates a lot of the film’s lengthy running time. Clocking in at nearly two hours, the film feels about 30 minutes too long – a protracted dialogue sequence between Solo and Debicki’s Vinciaguerra at a racetrack function is particularly gruelling considering the brisk pacing of the film to that point – and the end, which comes with a flick of a button and a distinct lack of “gotcha”, kinda limps to the line rather than sprinting with a flourish.
Naturally, you can’t have a film like this without setting up the obligatory sequel (I’d be thinking a sequel will be ill-advised, considering everything, but Hollywood isn’t known for being overly wise when money can be made from polishing up a shit) and The Man From UNCLE ticks all the “franchise” boxes with black ink. It’s kinda like an anti-Charlies Angels, this film, a film that stars a couple of cool cats and some sweet crumpet, but offers little by way of intelligent thought. Had the film’s sense of ebullient charm clicked a little better, the shallow characters and rambunctious story might have enjoyed more savouring, but alas, UNCLE is another run-of-the-mill attempt to capitalize on a conceit long since dormant (and recently resurrected, if you parallel this to Austin Powers’ parody of the genre). Gallant in defeat, The Man From UNCLE is entertaining to a point, but as undemanding as a film of this ilk is destined to be.
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