A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2015

MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. jjj
 

2015, PG-13, 116 mins.

 

Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller  /  Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo  /  Hugh Grant as Waverly  /  Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin  /  Jared Harris as Sanders  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Victoria Vinciguerra

Directed by Guy Ritchie  /  Written by Ritchie and  Lionel Wigram

Guy Ritchie’s MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is proof positive that you can make a fully enjoyable and engaging spy thriller built strongly on the merits of stunning production design and, most importantly, the charisma and camaraderie of its main stars.  

Based loosely on the NBC TV series of the same name that aired in the mid-1960’s (never viewed by me), MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. maintains brisk pacing throughout, some dry and subversive wit, impeccable period design, and some solid and likeable performances that have a level of offbeat interplay that helps give the film a mischievous edge of intrigue.  Even when the film falters and devolves into too many overused spy film clichés and conventions, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. remains hip and fun, traits that seem somewhat lost in many recent ultra solemn genre entries. 

One large part of the film’s success is that it maintains the original series’ time period.  Unlike other example of TV-to-movie adaptations (like, say, the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, also a product of the late 60’s), MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. pays loving homage to 60’s pop culture and the spy films that permeated that decade.  You gain an instant sensation just a few short minutes into the film that Ritchie clearly has a boundless love for this decade and all of its stylistic accoutrements.  From the snappy and punching costumes on the elegant women and dapper men to the richly lush atmosphere of its Euro locales, everything visually in MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is wholeheartedly on point.  Thankfully, the film has a wonderfully game cast that really compliments the film’s retro and old-fashioned aesthetic.  Few films from 2015 are as sumptuously attractive and transport views to a different time and place as resoundingly well as this one. 

 

 

The film opens rather sensationally with American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, harnessing the look of a Don Draper with the cheeky banter of a Roger Moore-ian James Bond) attempts to enter East Berlin in hopes of smuggling out Gaby Teller (EX MACHINA’s gorgeous Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic whose father – a brilliant rocket scientist – has mysteriously disappeared.  Even though Solo makes contact with the initially frazzled Gaby, the two of them are hunted by a ruthlessly determined KGB agent named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, which an ultra thick Russian accent…done reasonably well).  Kuryakin nearly catches and apprehends the pair, but Solo and Gaby do manage to make it to safety.  However, when Solo’s handler (Jared Harris) later informs him that Kuryakin will – yup! – become his partner in locating Gaby’s father, tensions run wild right from the get go.  It appears that Gaby’s dad could be forced against his will to develop a nuclear bomb for the nefarious Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), which forces Solo and Kuryakin to somehow overcome their respective cultural differences and hatch a plan to stop someone as demented as Vinciguerra from having a doomsday device. 

MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. looks endearingly old school while utilizing cutting edge and modern effects trickery to help sell the legitimacy of its Cold War era time period.  The film works purely as something to just engage with and take in the colorfully memorizing sights.  Modernizing the film’s story would have been a categorical mistake, and the temptation to do just that must have been large.  Yet, so much of the overt and inviting charm of this film is simply in drinking in all of its visual glory.  It’s also a film where limitlessly beautiful actors are allowed to parade around in equally gorgeous clothing, which also does a tremendous job of keeping viewers fully immersed in its 60’s setting.  There’s no doubt that – it could easily be argued – that Ritchie is perhaps so enamored with the whole look of the film that cohesive and intriguing scripting takes a backseat.  Miraculously, though, the unrelenting slickness of MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. never seems to overwhelm the actors or narrative. 

Casting is key in the film and it has a wonderful triumvirate in Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander.  Cavill has been criticized in past films for having a lackluster overall screen presence despite his attractive façade.  However, he overcomes such criticisms here by playing Solo as a man of nuanced low-key charm that has a well-orchestrated quip for any occasion.  Not only can Cavill rock a suit better than just about any actor on screen, but he also has a devilishly playful attitude that he neither overplays to hammy levels nor underplays too subtly.  Hammer also acclimatizes himself quite well to the proceedings and has a nice, unforced repartee with his co-stars.  American actors doing Russian drawl can sometimes be beyond obtrusive and distracting, but Hammer has great fun playing up to his character’s stone cold temperament that garners many of the film’s earned laughs.  The luminous Vikander is sort of an offbeat and unpredictable force in this film that’s most welcoming, which really helps considering that her role is somewhat underwritten.  Part of her cover is to masquerade as a married couple with Kuryakin, and Vikander and Hammer show great delight in playing off of the subverted sexual tension displayed between their respective characters. 

As he has demonstrated throughout his career, Ritchie is more than adept at delivering high octane and impeccably coordinated action beats and MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is assuredly no exception.  Ritchie bombards viewers with his trademark acuity for delivery rough, rugged, and beautifully stage set pieces here, and many sequences in the film stand out as highly effective and exhilarating.  The aforementioned opening scenes to the film are thrillingly edited and choreographed, not to mention a later sequence – involving Solo and Kuryakin trying to evade capture by fleeing on a motorboat – culminates with unexpectedly humorous results.  There’s a final set piece - a viscerally staged chase montage involving jeeps, motorcycles, and ATVs - that packs a sizeable visceral punch.  Sometimes, Ritchie gets a bit too cute and on the nose using rapid fire split screens and other visual trickery, but it fortunately never taints the film to off-putting and eye-straining levels. 

Having said all of that, I wished that Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram gave more love to supporting characters, like Hugh Grant’s delightful – but egregiously brief – role of a governmental agent that cooks up the whole idea of birthing the U.N.C.L.E. agency altogether that will team up the best of the east and west (a little bit of Grant’s delectably droll throwaway line readings goes a long way in this film, and the finale certainly hints at larger participation on his part in potential sequels).  The overall plot, as mentioned, is essentially a buddy/cop formula film with spy genre trappings about two heroes overcoming personal odds and differences to thwart the villain’s delusions of world domination (been-there, done-that).  Yet, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is so damn attractive, so richly atmospheric, and has so much raw energy as an enjoyable espionage romp that I didn’t care about the film’s foibles after awhile.  This film is one of superficial pleasures, to be sure, but it’s engagingly superficial and never dull. 

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