A Little Game of How’s Your Father: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review

Many critics love to complain about films or filmmakers who prize “style” over “substance”. Often times, this reductive shorthand fails to recognize what the filmmaker in question brings to classical or contemporary cinema. For every remark made about Tim Burton’s penchant for gothic and macabre imagery is a missed one on his ability to make his twisted psyche commercially viable. Wes Anderson, whose undying love from hipster cinephiles can turn off more casual viewers, has in essence remade the same movie nearly a dozen times with fresh locations and fresh-enough performances that make his sleight of hand more appreciable.[1] Ultimately, it is up for the viewer to determine whether or not a particular auteur’s visual or narrative flair is a worthy substitute for earnestly told material.

For Guy Ritchie, the style IS the substance. The British director has made a career out of turning potboiler crime and detective stories into memorable and entertaining movies. His latest film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., finds the filmmaker taking aim at the spy genre, a reliable workshop for directors to test their skills in a medium where every foreseeable trick has already been played on audiences. In terms of plot, U.N.C.L.E. hardly lifts a finger to break any new ground. An adaption of the sixties television show of the same name, the movie follows two rival spies, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) of the CIA and  Illya Kuryaki (Armie Hammer) of the KGB, being forced to work together to dismantle a separatist criminal organization that threatens to destroy them both. Additionally, they must tango with Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a foxy East Berlin car mechanic whose familial connections include former Nazi scientists capable of nuking both Washington D.C. and Moscow.

If this plot description sounds like Ritchie rhapsodizing in a Warner Brothers pitch meeting, then you would probably be correct. This project has kicked around Hollywood for decades, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh flirting with it before inevitably getting cold feet. Perhaps it was best that a director like Ritchie, who is an entertainer first and an artist second, was the one to helm this spy flick. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s style feels like a brave attempt from Richie to shoot the film with a playfulness that no doubt would have been showcased by Soderbergh while avoiding the temptation of genre deconstruction that’s chances of redundancy are as likely as revelation.

Ritchie makes use of every trick in his arsenal, from split-screens that bleed into one another to subtitles that run whether or not the dialogue is even audible. The film even arranges exposition dumps, like Solo’s long resume, surprisingly lightly, constantly keeping the audience on their toes. Also, U.N.C.L.E. is not afraid to show off delightfully bizarre asides, like a former Nazi monologuing on the joys of torture or Solo patiently taking a reprieve while Kuryaki tries to shake off his pursuers. What could easily have been the climactic battle to end the movie is shortened in a quick montage, as Ritchie saves the goods for an unexpectedly memorable finish. It is also important to note that while the movie has plenty of action scenes, numerous exchanges play out through battles of wit or gloriously old fashioned gadgetry. This capable assuredness is just the type of approach that makes a story that should be as stale as decades-old bread feel invigorating.

But again, visual and aural panache cannot be everything; so what about the characters? While the script fails to give Cavill a lot to work with[2], the actor’s grin alone grants Solo a level of certainty in his competency that made me at points brace for the bottom to drop out from under him, exposing his brashness as ignorance. Solo’s circumstances test him at points, but the debonair super-spy always finds a way to squeeze himself from the proceedings, be it through his own ingenuity or sheer dumb luck. Hammer, on the other hand, gets the meatier role in Kuryaki, a less verbal but intimidating force of brute strength. Kuryaki’s also gets a richer backstory, as the KGB agent’s father (a Stalinist) was banished to a Gulag while his mother faced a promiscuous reputation. His internal bouts of anger verge on exterior explosion, making his emotional unpredictability perhaps his greatest weapon. Cavill and Hammer make a good pair because their actions are constantly one-upping or challenging the other on such a regular basis. But like other action movies this summer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proves estrogen can be just as powerful (if not more) as testosterone. Vikander’s portrayal of Teller is equal parts cute and dangerous, making her a worthy third lead in a movie that does not necessarily need one.

For all these reasons, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a much more successful throwback than this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. The latter film tries to have its cake and eat it too by mocking genre clichés and mustache twirling villainy of Connery and Moore-era bond while attempting to show that this class of movies still has legs. I am not saying it is impossible to be both celebratory and derisive but Kingsman certainly does not live up to its promise. U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, takes a much less pretentious take, understanding that simply playing into the genre in a stylish way makes a tired genre all the crisper.[3] Ritchie’s film plays less like a literal translation of early Bond than it does like a modern version on how those films made audiences feel in the Sixties.

Arriving just two weeks after the terrific Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. risks being forgotten as lacking the luster of the more seasoned Mission: Impossible franchise, even though U.N.C.L.E.’s period detail and signature duo allow it to stand on its own.[4] The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in all likelihood, will be remembered much like the 2008 spy comedy Get Smart[5]: entertaining while it lasts but ultimately forgettable summer fare. Both will fail to start franchises and the industry will be better for it. One-off spy adventures will always be welcome as long as we have long neglected properties in the vault ready to be revamped for modern audiences.

3 stars out of 5

mfu

[1] The list could go on and on: Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, etc. This is a topic I would like to revisit in the future.

[2] Much like Man of Steel before it.

[3] Ironically, Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn, the director of Kingsman, have collaborated on several films together, including Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class was a much better take on Bond-era espionage films, even if it included mutants into the equation.

[4] Ironically, both are adaptations

[5] Another adaption of a 60s spy show. Seriously, how many of these things were around?!

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