The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: 3 out of 5
In the world of big screen TV reboots, it is nice to see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. make a valiant effort to hold on to what worked originally. I won’t pretend to be a pro, when it comes to remembering the series (I saw some reruns when I was younger), but the film tries hard to hold onto its spirit. It is an attempt that has led to one of the more stylish films of the summer. I only wish it had more going on to allow the film anything that would lead to a reason to not just write it off as an entertaining distraction.
The film is an action-comedy set against the backdrop of the 60s Cold War era. Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are rival spies working on a joint mission to stop a very bad person from doing a very bad thing with a very big nuclear weapon. While exposition-heavy, the plot is fairly inconsequential, as the film is more about these guys learning to get along and what looks good.
There is also a girl thrown into the mix. This is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German scientist involved in the scheme being led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Based on the mission given to the men, Gaby will be helping in the plot to infiltrate the criminal organization and stop the bad guys from doing bad things. It is all about as straightforward as it sounds plot-wise and getting into what U.N.C.L.E. stands for would only be wasting your time.
What really matters, once again, are these character. Who they are, how they act and how they dress becomes the most important aspect of the film and to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s credit, there is a very good-looking film here. Sticking with the appropriate time period, the film has its own world to play around with and writer/director Guy Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram certainly do their part to address what should be amusing, while surprisingly playing down other aspects.
Not that it is completely important, given that I now have the finished product to work with, but there was a time when Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney were attached this project (they were among many involved in a decade-long attempt to adapt this series into a film actually). I bring that up, because The Man From U.N.C.L.E . certainly has a number of aspects you could see working in a Soderbergh joint. Regardless of what skeletons of ideas were left over though, this is a film that does have a dry and quirky sense of humor about what is important to show.
Action is not necessarily lacking, but underplayed (as is the actual sex in a film that puts forward a lot of sexual tension between characters). We get a number of scenes that take to what is going on in the character’s mind during action sequences, rather than doing too much to really engage in their physicality and acrobatics. I, myself, may be underselling the big action in this film (a few kinetic scenes are very well staged), but the film is far more interesting when we see something like Solo taking a break mid-gun battle/boat chase or when we get the lead up to a scene where Illya beats up some guys in a bathroom, rather than see what he actually does to them.
Whatever is going happening on screen, the filmmakers certainly adore watching the characters, as there is so much devotion to how these characters look that the characters actually bicker about what they are wearing. It helps that the actors are certainly game to have a good time. You can tell this by the fact that every major actor is sporting an accent that is not their own (a touch that easily seems straight outta Soderbergh).
Performance-wise, there is some interesting stuff here. Cavill excels as basically making Solo a dick. The guy acts as if he knows everything and rarely has his confidence swayed. Hammer gets the more excitable role, as he plays his character as one powered by seething rage. The guy has true talent in the form of physical comedy contained in his body type, which only so many can pull off well. The two get along quite well and Vikander fits right in, even if the film does eventually turn her into a damsel in distress. Debicki also fairs well, which is nice to see, given how great she was in The Great Gatsby.
With all of this in mind, the film should be more fun and it just isn’t quite there. The plot is so standard and the various attempts to make it more exciting by way of tricky editing patterns and dry attempts at humor to spice up the details about the actual story being told only take the film so far. Instead, there is so much time spent lingering on how good-looking this film is that you can eventually start to see all the strings being pulled to tell a very conventional story that happens to have very stylish décor on its walls.
There was a time when a new Guy Ritchie film would have me incredibly excited for what was to come. While he has had ups and downs, following the one-two punch of greatness that was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (Ritchie also gave the world Jason Statham, so that’s worth noting right there), his turn to standard blockbuster entertainment with the Sherlock Holmes films and now this leaves me wondering if he can ever get back to something with more soul.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., much like the Sherlock films, is not completely vapid, but this does feel like a giant exercise in the powers that Ritchie has in taking a summer movie and molding it into something that looks and sounds good enough for general audiences, but does not quite go the full route in standing out amidst all that is out there. There is enough good stuff in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to make it worth recommending, but not a whole lot that will leave you coming back for more.