Guy Ritchie’s spy thriller ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ is an adaptation of the television series which ran from 1964-1968. I have never seen an episode of the show, but I suspect most moviegoers haven’t either given that fans who tuned into the program are now in their 70s.
Mr. Ritchie’s picture is only sporadically diverting. The scenes that do work are all the more frustrating because they are shoehorned into a baffling story that doesn’t involve us. Every successful gag is followed by an unrelenting amount of exposition and plot reveals. The movie is all surface – there is nothing here to sink into.
The plot, not that it matters, involves two war spy enemies Napoloeon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) who team together to stop a criminal organization from creating an atomic bomb.
The movie opens with a slick and effective shootout chase in East Berlin. The Americans task Solo with extracting a young auto mechanic (or is she) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from the communist state. But, the Russians task Kuryakin with the exact same thing thus building to a crescendo involving all three parties in which one of them physically rips off the trunk of a car.
I was wondering why these guys were divulging international secrets in a crowded outdoor café where they could easily be overheard – and then the rug was pulled from underneath me in one of the film’s best visual gags. I wish there were more moments like this, though there is one bit of inspired lunacy that had me laughing so hard, I almost had to excuse myself – for those of you who see it, and I don’t recommend you do, it is when a minor villain is given a taste of his own medicine.
In terms of backstory, all we know is that Solo is a master thief, and Kuryakin is a frenzied muscleman with unresolved daddy issues who only exercises patience when he is playing a game of chess. This provides Cavill and Hammer with lively bits to perform, and they are game. They look great in their custom suits and sunglasses, yes, but that isn’t enough – they are posing, not acting; they have zero chemistry together. And so, top billing deserves to go to Joanna Johnston, the costume designer.
The picture does use the lack of magnetism between its leads to humorous effect though – after a frenetic chase, Solo sits out on the action in the cab of a trunk whilst Kuryakin is pursued by some baddies on his own. The movie itself sits out on the action for the most part as well. At least until a final chase involving a jeep, an osseous all-terrain vehicle, and a motorcycle unfolds in chaotically spectacular fashion – the point of view shots and overhead shots of the topography shifted so quickly, it was as if everyone was fighting for the controls of a videogame.
As for the filmmaking, if you’ve ever seen a Guy Ritchie picture, you know that you’ll get a flashy, highly stylized product. Mr. Ritchie wants to luxuriate in the ambience of the 1960s – the production design evokes a ‘Mad Men’ feel (the suits, hats, handbags, beautiful locales). Even the soundtrack doesn’t have the sort of vitality and liveliness that it should – when we think back to the music of this era, Roberta Flack, and Louis Prima aren’t exactly the artists who come first to mind. The outrageous material is discharged on minor key – it is as if the script for ‘Austin Powers’ ended up on Tarsem Singh’s desk.
Vikander demonstrated more emotional range as an android in ‘Ex Machina’ (one of the best films of 2015) than she does here. This is a waste of her talents and screen presence. The same can’t be said of Hugh Grant – his emanant return in the last half hour, after a brief introduction earlier in the movie, gives the picture some much-needed tiger blood. Grant’s character births the entire U.N.C.L.E. concept (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), which from my understanding is like a Marvel shared universe for spy agencies – the affixing of the KGB, C.I.A, and MI6.
My rewrite of this script would have much more Grant – establishing the U.N.C.L.E. concept from the get-go rather than the film’s final minutes, and operating as the brains of the organization. If the movie makes more than its $75 million budget at the box office, we can expect a sequel (which might resemble my vision). With ‘Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’ in theaters, why bother with ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’? The former is one of the more enjoyable releases of this summer movie season – when you see this second tier stuff, it suffers in comparison by a significant margin. ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E. should be ashamed to present itself in the same theaters playing ‘Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’. QED.