With vintage brand recognition and the mandate to close summer movie season with the light touch of a romp, comes The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the 1960s TV show of the same name. It’s director Guy Ritchie’s latest stab at starting a buddy-action franchise (2009’s Sherlock Holmes), so expect plenty of style-as-substance fun. But in a year stuffed with spy films, can this one stand out?
As far as plot matters in this type of film, here it is. In 1963, the CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts mechanic and daughter of a former Nazi Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin, despite the best efforts of KGB killing machine Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). After the dust settles, the gravity of an international threat looming from Victoria Vinciguerra’s (Elizabeth Debicki) plan to use Gaby’s father to build a nuclear warhead convinces the CIA and KGB to partner Solo and Kuryakin to neutralize this existential threat. But each agent is tasked by his respective government to betray his partner. Much distrust, and arguing about fashion choices, ensues between the two agents.
In this film, the buck kind of stops at the quality of the three leads, and their chemistry as a unit – luckily, this most important aspect of the film works a charm. In the Napoleon role, Cavill curates a heightened charm that fits into the overall splashy tone. Cavill is having a hell of a lot of fun, quite a contrast to the more stoic qualities Hollywood has brought out of him in the past (Immortals, Man of Steel). Bristling against Napoleon’s roguish charm is Armie Hammer’s flustered hardass Illya.
Illya is from a certain point of view portrayed as a stock character, all wounded Russian pride, and indeed at times it feels like he’s the butt of a screenplay-long joke. But hey, it’s a joke that works, and Hammer is game to have fun playing a straight man. It’s as if the screenplay leans into the cliché of Illya’s character by giving him psychotic episodes whenever his pride is punctured, and after it’s clumsily set up, these episodes shockingly work too, when used as a demonstrable ratcheting up of dramatic tension while Illya is undercover.
Five films into her stunning nine scheduled for release this year, Alicia Vikander is proving that she can do pretty much anything… including blending into the 1960s as if she belongs! Her Gaby is a mechanic, a fun but underutilized trait, and more or less an equal partner in the story. Unfortunately she’s a bit shoved to one side toward the end even as a reveal brings her onto a more level playing field with the male leads. So that’s another way Gaby fits into the 1960s: she’s a competent woman who’s sidelined…
The script is written by director Ritchie along with Lionel Wigram, a producer given his first screenplay credit. Ritchie would tinker with the script even while the pages were being shot, and encouraged ad-libs from his actors. This is a technique that fits the laid-back aesthetic of the film and one that does benefit the core trio of actors, but the consequence is that what plotty stuff does get translated on screen remains dense and non-involving. Now granted, at least some of the exposition is punched up by Ritchie’s trademark aerobic editing, courtesy of six-time Ritchie collaborative editor James Herbert (even though the briefing on Napoleon gave me severe déjà vu of their previous film, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows). And the entire film is enlivened by Daniel Pemberton’s brash swinging music, which at times blurs the line between soundtrack and score – when you’re not sure whether the composer’s hand is in play or whether the instrumental track is ripped right from the 60s, he’s doing a bang-up job. There are times when the music is so forthright that it straddles the ridiculous, but I wouldn’t sacrifice the score for dignity at this point.
In short, the stylistic flourish of The Man of U.N.C.L.E. is there, with cast chemistry, savvy editing and a delightful score being the best elements on show. My favorite scene is a deftly crosscut sequence at a racetrack that uses editing and the plot device of Illya’s psychosis as fuel for its engine. Another really cool editing moment: the live-action segment behind the opening credits is cut exactly like a 1960s spy TV show (presumably like the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I’ve not seen any episodes, though I understand the splitscreen technique used here is from the show). There is a lot of “callback” editing on show (cutting back in time to show a detail you missed when it actually happened), which comes across as self-satisfied in its own cleverness, but that’s not such a bad thing here.
Well, it’s sure a good thing that Ritchie is able to oversee editing, because he can’t direct action in this movie. There are numerous action beats swallowed into a bit of a vortex, but it’s not a complete picture of failure – the vehicular action is good, and Ritchie is assisted by the aforementioned splitscreen and other editing tricks that cover for him. More explicit in the film’s story, however, is the villain problem.
We are told multiple times that Victoria Vinciguerra is a force to be reckoned with, but when she shows up it would be a real stretch to say she lives up to the build-up, and she’s really abruptly dispatched. Show, don’t tell. Or at least tell, as well as show! There’s a wider problem with the layering of the villains, because beyond Victoria there are three other layers of “big bads” to peel through, and one in particular is also super-aggrandized before his swift fall. So we have this film that on a certain level doesn’t want you to care so much about its story because it lives and dies by other things (which is absolutely appropriate for a splashy franchise debut; don’t have a super-strong villain out the gate; style > substance; *nods in agreement*)… then persists in building up its lame-duck villains as if they’re more than they really are!
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. personifies 60s cool, with three dynamite super-likable leads, a great rollicking score, some smoothly effective editing, and did I mention those leads? I stand by the problems I have with the film, but I also acknowledge these are no dealbreakers. It’s fun! There is just something missing here, in addition to the problems I can articulate, that prevent me from giving this romp any more than: A strong 6/10.
P.S.: It’s ironic when Illya uses the nickname “cowboy” for his partner Napoleon, since Armie Hammer played The Lone Ranger in 2013!