Sunday, August 30, 2015

'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' review

2015 is, without a doubt in my mind, the year of the spy movie. The year kicked off with Matthew Vaughn's terrific Kingsman: The Secret Service, and continued with Paul Feig's Spy, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, and now, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the latest film from acclaimed director Guy Ritchie. And while this flick isn't quite as fresh or compelling as those other espionage adventures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is still a stylish and enjoyable film. With a tone that feels like a mishmash of Kingsman, Bond and Quentin Tarantino, U.N.C.L.E. is held together very loosely by its story while the direction and performances elevate it. There's not much substance underneath all of the 1960s gloss, but when a film looks and feels as good as U.N.C.L.E., there's no need for much depth.


Set in the tumultuous time of the early 60s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. follows two secret agents- American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer)- as they search for a nuclear weapon that has the potential to fall into the wrong hands. Solo and Kuryakin duel at first, but shortly after, their superiors inform them that they'll have to team up with each other for their next mission, along with Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the niece of a former Nazi scientist (Sylvester Groth) with the potential to develop an Atom bomb. Napoleon, Illya and Gaby will need to infiltrate the organization of Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the head of a powerful family that intends to use Gaby's Uncle to create the bomb. The uneasy alliance blossoms into a real friendship as the film unfolds, leading the trio into a unique and insane series of adventures.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn't a very challenging film, nor is it one that specializes in a complex plot or excessively compelling characters. The plot is pretty basic spy territory- bad guys have nuclear bomb. Bad guys want to use nuke. Good guys must stop them. And while the film does attempt to have some genuine character moments, there isn't a lot beneath the surface for the principal leads of this trio. But to say that this film isn't very smart or complex would be underestimating the charm of the film. What makes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. work is the style and ultimately, the characters. The style is brilliant and it keeps the movie flowing, while the characters are simply likable, which is refreshing in the world of darkly motivated anti-heroes. This film might be the weakest of the 2015 spy films, but there's plenty of fun to be had with Ritchie's spy extravaganza.

At the start of the film, I didn't really care about Napoleon, Illya or Gaby. And on their own, I'm still not sure that I care that much about them. They're pretty generic characters and there's not much there to make them interesting. However, when you put the trio together, that's when there's something special. While The Man from U.N.C.L.E. can often be a shaky origin story, by the end of the film, I was impressed by how much Ritchie had made me like the characters, and how badly I wanted to see more adventures with them. There's this odd chemistry between the three that simply works and it brings a human element to the stylistic and colorful direction.

Henry Cavill is best known for playing Superman in Man of Steel and I have to admit, when I first saw that film, I didn't think much of his acting abilities. His Clark Kent/Superman is pretty lifeless and there's not much emotion or energy to make that character interesting. In The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Cavill seems to be having much more fun and because of that, the audience is having more fun too. The sarcastic suaveness of Cavill's Solo works on every level and I think he brought a lot to this movie. Hammer is very good as well, making Illya a brutish, but lovable character that has a rather amusing relationship with Solo. Cavill and Hammer have terrific chemistry in the film and I really loved the dynamic between the two characters.

Alicia Vikander is the final link of the trio of leads, and she continues her very impressive run of performances. After her dazzling and terrifying in Alex Garland's Ex Machina, the beautiful Vikander manages to be sweet and down-to-Earth as Gaby, who's cunning and smart with questionable motivations. Vikander is the gel between Cavill and Hammer that makes the whole thing work, and I can personally guarantee you that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would not work without its three leads.

The other aspect that makes U.N.C.L.E. stand out from the pack is the jazzy and polished direction of Guy Ritchie. While not quite as hyper-violent as Kingsman or as thrillingly Hitchcockian as Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a high-energy burst of Tarantino-esque music ques, fast and borderline comical editing, and dry comedic tension that makes each scene pop with a freshness that makes the film memorable. The style is almost so overwhelming at times that it can become a bit generic, but as the film moves on, it becomes more and more comfortable with its smooth flow and modern look. The music by Daniel Pemberton is also quite great, giving the film a flashy sensibility that really works. All in all, Ritchie's direction and the elements that he manages to bring together work terrifically, overwhelming the film's flaws.

Despite the fact that it's ultimately a pretty good film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn't as good as it should be. It's undoubtedly good to look at and energetically performed, but the script is a failure in many aspects. It's tough to care too much about any of the going-ons in the film, with a plot that is undercooked in more ways than one. Elizabeth Debicki's Victoria is a vague and poorly developed villain and some of the twists feel forced and unnecessary. And there are moments where the film's sensibilities feel fake and phony, similar to the way that they felt in Focus, the mediocre Will Smith vehicle from earlier this year.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may be narratively and thematically empty, but that doesn't stop it from being a rollicking good time. Even though this film is struggling at the box office, I can't help but want to see more films with these characters and more movies like this. Because despite its derivative elements, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels like a wholly unique creation and one that becomes memorable because of its direction and performances. For an August blockbuster, this film is everything that you could possibly want.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.5/10)


Image Credits: YouTube, Hollywood Reporter, HenryCavill.org

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