WRITTEN REVIEW – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki & Hugh Grant
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Release Date: August 14th 2015
In recent years the only big names in the spy-action genre have been the James Bond franchise, the ‘Bourne‘ franchise and also ‘Mission: Impossible‘ – the latter of which being a constant thanks to a TV series revival as well as a long-running film franchise. But one franchise that isn’t nearly as well known but is still fondly remember by those that were exposed to it during its initial run was the TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”. This spy/espionage TV series ran for 4 seasons between 1964 and 1968 and paired up a U.S. spy and a Russian spy despite the two countries being at odds during the height of the Cold War.
Unlike the ‘Mission: Impossible‘ franchise which has had numerous iterations, the “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” franchise hasn’t had any pop-culture ubiquity since the series ended. That’s not an insult to the series, I must stress, it just hasn’t. In fact, Tom Cruise actually turned down the leading role in this new reboot in order to work on ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘. So it’s a risky proposition for Warner Bros. with this reboot/prequel but with Guy Ritchie making an action/comedy/thriller bro-mance movie work in 2009 with ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ he seems to be the right fit for this material. Is this old, mostly forgotten franchise still relevant or is just another movie coasting on any recognisable brand name?
In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, CIA agent/ex-criminal Napoleon Solo (Cavill) has just completed a successful extraction mission in Berlin with Gaby Teller (Vikander) who is the daughter of an ex-Nazi scientist who is building a nuclear device with other Nazi-sympathisers. During the mission, they evade KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) who was tasked with stopping Solo. The next day, Solo and Kuryakin are assigned on a mission together from both the East and West to track down the nuclear weapon and to assist Gaby in tracking down her father to prevent this weapon from being built and saving the world.
Just to clarify, I have not seen any of the TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”. Thought I have spoken to older relatives who watched the show when it was first on and they say that this movie has little to no easter eggs for the series and that it’s pretty much a standalone film through and through. With that out of the way…
‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ was a movie I was highly anticipating because director Guy Ritchie normally really excels at this sort of material. Even Ritchie’s bad movies have a wonderful kinetic energy to them so you’re never bored and his better movies demonstrate a skill in being able to work with ensemble casts and getting actors to work really well with each other – see ‘Snatch‘, ‘RocknRolla‘ and ‘Sherlock Holmes‘. But with ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ it seems like Guy Ritchie was ordered by higher-ups to reign in his personality and to just stick to what they wanted meaning that the signature Guy Ritchie touch isn’t present.
In the face of a strong set-up and premise, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ actually does very little to capitalise on its best elements. Actors Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer work incredibly well with each other, but there aren’t enough scenes of them facing off. Despite a strong first impression with the action where a car chase takes place on the streets of East Berlin following Napoleon, Gaby and Illya through the inside of apartment blocks and over the roofs, the action is limp for the rest of the film. ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ keeps everything at a 5, when Guy Ritchie has been known for pushing things to 11 meaning that the movie is personality-free and always feels restrained.
The chemistry between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer is strong and the pairing of the CIA and KGB during this time period is genuinely inspired. It just shows how ahead-of-its-time “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” TV series was. But the two only get to truly engage with each other and butt heads in a handful of scenes during the first act. It’s during these scenes are the movie shines as the two actors have chemistry with each other and the banter is legitimately funny. One sequence that takes place inside a clothes shop just reaks of potential homosexual under-tones which make the political over-tones even funnier. But these scenes only take up around 15%-20% of the movie as the script, co-written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, separates Napoleon and Illya for most of the film which guts ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ of these interesting exchanges.
The rest of the movie is built around a plot that is needlessly complicated, with double-crosses, allegiances crossing the globe and the main trio being tasked to do missions that really don’t make a lot of sense in the moment. A lot of it is held together by the chemistry of the main characters, including Gaby Teller who has the emotional stakes in the story as it’s her father being tracked down but the movie deciding to sideline the Napoleon/Illya relationship for the sake of the narrative was a huge lapse in judgement creatively.
That’s mainly because the two actors work so well. British actor Henry Cavill plays the charming U.S. spy Napoleon Solo and plays a nearly flawless rendition of the suave, cocky spy archetype. He might be a bit too well built as he’s more of a body-builder than a spy (he is LITERALLY Superman, after all) but he oozes charm and is entertaining to watch. Armie Hammer is also engaging and gets to do most of the growing over the course of the film as he starts the film as a psychopath with parental issues and has to get his aggressive attitude under control for the sake of the mission. Despite big-budget box-office flops under his belt such as ‘The Lone Ranger‘, Armie Hammer is a great actor and while his success rate at the Russian accent are…mixed…he does well with the character.
Alicia Vikander impresses in her 600th movie appearance this year, and works well with her two male co-leads, but I think centring a lot of movie around the dynamic between her and Illya takes focus away from the primary strength of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ which is the reluctant pairing of Napoleon and Illya. While the Gaby and Illya dynamic is well done and the two have chemistry, it does pale in comparison to the not-at-all-subtle potentially-homosexual Napoleon and Illya pairing. For crying out loud, there’s an entire scene dedicated to the two deciding which belt matches which handbag for Gaby. Meanwhile, Jared Harris as Napoleon’s boss is given a minimal, wasted role, Elizabeth Debicki, while being good as a 60s femme fatale does little to mix-up the conventional archetype and Hugh Grant only gets 5-10 minutes of screentime. Although, to be fair, all movies are hurt by the lack of Hugh Grant so I can’t hold ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ against it too much.
One big issue is that the movie thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. The movie frequently flashes back to previous events, similar to what Guy Ritchie did with ‘Sherlock Holmes‘, in order to show how clever the writers are at setting up events and twists. But ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ often flashes back to events that literally happened SECONDS ago that the audience just saw and are fully aware of what took place.
Movie, we’re not THAT stupid that we need to be reminded of Hugh Grant saying something 5 seconds ago.
The movie feels like it mainly exists to set-up sequels with the end of the movie establishing the origins of U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) but it neglects the main story itself which isn’t particularly compelling or out-of-the-box for the genre. The movie also carries some extra baggage including an entire scene giving a backstory to what essentially amounts to a nameless henchmen who is about to torture Solo. And while the confrontation has an awesome punch-line, it did not need the five minutes of set-up. Despite not being that long as ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ is a 116 minute movie, it does feel like all of the deleted scenes that should have been saved for the DVD made it in, including the three endings of the film which make the 3rd act a drag.
The action could have been a saving grace, but with the exception of a solid car chase during the opening and a brief toilet-fight (probably the best fight to take place in a toilet since ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines‘ or ‘Casino Royale‘), the rest is uninspired and mostly takes place in detached montages. What should have been a slickly put together set-piece in the 3rd act of a group of soldiers storming a base just became a jumble that was far more interested in being stylish as opposed to presenting any sort of stakes or risk for the main characters.
Director Guy Ritchie may seem suited to the material, but without his trademark style and rawness as ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ looks very slick and high-budget, it’s a strange match and the end result is a movie that’s personality-free. While the lighting is very good, as is the production design and detail with accurate 1960s clothing, vehicles and technology on display, it’s a flatly directed film with very odd tonal changes where the movie goes from romance, goof-ball comedy and torture-porn from scene to scene. There’s also one odd moment near the very beginning of the movie where Gaby is driving a car with Napoleon in the back seat and he tells her to go left. The camera then cuts to a birds-eye-view angle of the street and then Gaby turns right.
Daniel Pemberton’s music is appropriate for the genre but not particularly memorable, the use of colour is great as the sets are lavish and the costumes are gorgeous, the final chase sequence is uninspired despite a good use of establishing the geography and distance between the characters and while there is an incredibly funny scene with Napoleon Solo watching Illya get chased around in a speedboat, it does go on for a bit too long – once again going back to the movie thinking it’s smarter than it is.
‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ is not a bad movie. But just like I said with one of my most recent reviews, ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘, it felt like it took a “it’s good enough” approach. It feels like the movie did the absolute bare minimum to try and set up a franchise and I feel like with the groundwork this film has set that a sequel would be a definite improvement and maybe even something I’d want to watch. But it feels uninspired and wastes a good pairing between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer and Guy Ritchie’s trademark flare and style is nowhere to be seen. It’s a mediocre spy-film with enjoyable standalone scenes that don’t add up to anything truly substantial.
I give ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 27th Aug 15