The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson
Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris
PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Eager to unlock a new spy franchise, Warner Bros. dug deep into television vaults to unearth a popular, but unexpected program to adapt to the big screen. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may be entertaining, but it’s still a problematic adaptation.
Set in the 1960s as the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is in full swing, two agents from each side of the Iron Curtain are forced to team up in order to stop a charismatic entrepreneur from assembling and selling a nuclear bomb. With the aid of an East German auto mechanic, the trio unearths a far-reaching scheme that ultimately pits spy agencies against one another.
Henry Cavill stars as Napoleon Solo, an ex-burglar whose release from prison is conditioned upon his use of his charms and abilities for the C.I.A. Armie Hammer portrays Ilya Kuryakin, the Soviet agent whose bulky, boorish methods are diametrically opposed to Solo’s suave, debonair style. Caught between the two warring spies is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a brilliant mechanic whose family ties to the Vinciguerra family demand her participation in the intrigue.
More at home during the Cold War, this period-set drama doesn’t quite have the teeth to compete in a world of James Bonds, Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts. Using a pair of spies to protect the world is its only distinguishing characteristic and while Bond, Bourne and Hunt are all actively working in the modern world in spite of their 1960s origins, Man from U.N.C.L.E. keeps its footing in the framework of U.S.-Russian diplomatic stand-offs. It makes the series feel fresher, but doesn’t easily appeal to the mass audiences for whom it was designed. There’s no other reason to bring in a director like Guy Ritchie than this.
After creating two popular big screen adaptations for the Sherlock Holmes character, Ritchie seemed like the perfect director to bring an action-heavy period character drama to the big screen. Unfortunately, the oozing style that pervasively expressed itself in the Sherlock Holmes films is noticeably absent in this adaptation.
The settings, costumes and makeup are perfectly molded to the period, creating an environment that adequately evokes that era. Ritchie and his team even go so far as to limit themselves to technology available in that timeframe, which adds another layer of authenticity. Those are the only areas where the style works to the film’s advantage.
In their efforts to keep the film rooted in the 1960s, the producers have limited their adventures to ones that already feel old hat. These are topics and adventures that had been done ad nauseum in the last 50 years and no longer appear fresh and compelling. For those interested in this long gone era, it’s a fascinating film to watch. It pales in comparison to another period-driven spy film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it works for what it is.
Ritchie’s appreciation for action hijinks is well noted, though the film conflates the problems with his style dramatically. Still present is the frenetic editing pace of most action sequences in the film, which makes it nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on. He adds to that a pair of split-screen segments that evoke TV shows of that decade, but leave the audience scrambling to take in all of the panels at the same time. Bringing multiple events from different segments of the events going on simultaneously, Ritchie makes the unfortunate decision to cram them into tiny windows that, even on the expansive screens at movie theaters, make it difficult to see all of the action playing out at one time and thus confusing the audience about precisely what’s going on.
Hammer, Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki as the head of the Vinciguerra family, Hugh Grant as the head of British intelligence, and Jared Harris as the head of American intelligence, have all shown frequently that they are capable of great feats of acting. What Ritchie asks of them is little more than passable style and talent. Watching this, you’d be hard-pressed to see why Vikander, Hammer or Debicki have been discussed as incredibly talented in the past. These roles are almost superficial. Debicki comes off best with her vicious villainess, but she ultimately succumbs to a poorly-constructed character filled with bounteous clichés. Cavill comes off fairly well, but his big screen work has been lackluster at best.
The film doesn’t succeed nearly as well as it wants to or even should. Audience’s seem more interested in modern-set spy thrillers that use the latest technology to explore new areas they’ve never considered before. This film, however, is in love with an era. It’s in love with the time when James Bond was unequivocally the world’s greatest agent and his charm, personality and skill were emblems of Western competence against nefarious foes from around the globe.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may not deliver what its audience wants, but perhaps that’s for the best. Trying to carve out a new niche in the marketplace is a wonderful thing. If it can find just enough people to give in to the past and let it fill them with envy and fascination, maybe we can get a more diverse palate of superheroes and superspies who want to entertain us with quality story rather than explosive theatrics. This film doesn’t quite do enough of that. It relies on antiquated notions of excitement without tapping fully into its period-defining ambitions.
Until the very end when Vikander’s Gaby Teller is revealed to be an agent working for MI:6, it’s impossible to see her as anything more than a damsel in distress. She’s cunning and smart, but the film never gives her the opportunity to become more than window dressing for her two co-stars. That might play into the notion that she’s deep undercover in her work, but even after she’s revealed to be a spy, there’s no indication that she’s at all capable. The narrative works this out as she’s just working to save her father, but to be that clever at evading capture and setting the film’s latter events in motion, you would expect someone with a far better embodiment of bravery and tenacity than is depicted in her almost naïve personality.
Should a sequel be mounted, a prospect I serious doubt at this juncture, the producers and writers need to do a far better job of conveying that this person is not only competent, but an equal to her male counterparts. This is a woman who already has the brains and the chutzpah to do it, they just need to afford her the opportunity and stop relying on antiquate tropes that dictate she be rescued and protected at every opportunity by her supposed equals.
September 15, 2015