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Non-Review Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has style and charm. It doesn’t have much more than that, but never underestimate how far style and charm can get you. Guy Ritchie has always had a nice a sense of movement, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. always moves at a nice pace, even when it’s not entirely sure where it is going. A film so light that it threatens to get caught in the gust as it breezes by, it is also important never to overestimate how far style and charm can get you either.

Ride along...

Ride along…

The basic premise of the film actually has very little to do with the eponymous sixties television show, except for the main characters and the sixties setting. Then again, it’s not as if The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is too preoccupied with anything beyond getting to the next action set piece or the next cheeky joke or the next bit of banter. In many respects, the plot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. plays more like series of mad libs based upon sixties spy films than an organic story.

Something something something gentleman spy something something something silencer something something something sassy female supporting character something something something former Nazis something something something atomic bomb something something something secret film something something something skulking around industrial setting in black outfits something something something speed boat something something Royal Navy something something something submarine.

Back seat driver...

Back seat driver…

The script for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is less interested in making sense than it is in stitching together all the tropes that the audience (and presumably the film makers) expect from an affectionate sixties pastiche. The result is somewhat haphazard. The back story of Napoleon Solo is expounded upon (at length) by two characters, telling rather than showing. The back story of  Illya Kuryakin is consigned to some light trash talk at the start and then brought in as emotional leverage at the very end of the film.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is so busy struggling to fit in all the expected sequences and witty retorts that it feels somewhat incomplete. The movie doesn’t really have a climax, it just has an ending. There are no real stakes in the final part of the risky atomic era adventure, but that’s not really the problem. There is no real conflict. The villains get to do horrible things to motivate the heroes, but the resolution of their confrontation feels decidedly rote. There is a somewhat disjointed car chase, but the movie treats its antagonists as clutter to be tidied away.

The name's Solo, Napoleon Solo.

The name’s Solo, Napoleon Solo.

The film is packed full of weird anti-climaxes like that. The film never seems to stoke its own engine or get the pulse flowing. Napoleon Solo is repeatedly characterised as a coward in rather blunt bits of exposition; this would seem to set up a clear character arc for Solo. However, the film only allows Solo a single act of cowardice, which is played more for slapstick humour than for thrilling stakes. Other characters repeatedly tell us that Solo is a spineless coward, but the only time he feels like anything other than a stock action hero is for (an admittedly amusing) joke.

Similarly, the film never seems entirely sure where it is going or how it plans to get there. Considerable attention is devoted to how exactly Solo and Kuryakin plan to break into a so-called “island fortress”, to the point where the script bends over backwards to give them the necessary support structure. However, the actual siege is dealt with in a split screen montage, making it unclear why the script felt it so important to put emphasis on elements that have minimal bearing on how the plot plays out. (The siege would play out the same if Solo and Kuryakin went it alone.)

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Then again, these problems are not as severe as they might seem. The script of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a mess, but it has confidence in its director and its leads. Guy Ritchie has always had an impressive energy. Even when working from substandard material, there is a compelling verve and rhythm to Ritchie’s direction. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. moves along at a decent enough pace, with Ritchie having great fun employing split-screen and sixties screen transitions in an effort to paste over the script’s shortcomings.

The style is more “generic sixties” than “classic television series.” Composer Daniel Pemberton borrows more from Sergio Leone than from any of the show’s composers. The screen pops with bright oranges and blues. The suits look expensive. The subtitles are rendered stylistically, as if to enhance the experience. Senior Russian officials look like they steeped out of a cartoon, with charcoal suits and dark (permanently arched) eyebrows. Kennedy is on the television, the Berlin Wall is in the opening sequence.

The Cold War just got cooler...

The Cold War just got cooler…

Of course, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is trying to capture a fleeting cultural memory of the sixties rather than anything that actually existed; snippets of the era’s popular culture, with the eponymous television show just one element in a familiar stew. The Cold War might be going on, atomic destruction might loom large, but there is something quite romantic in the depiction of the era in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where American and Soviet tensions are played for macho one-upmanship and the inevitable gay jokes.

Guy Ritchie is a big part of the charm here, but he is able assisted by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Both actors are quite the professionals here, committing to the spirit of the piece and helping to keep the film moving on a scene-to-scene basis. The script nods towards character arcs, but Cavill and Hammer know better for that. Working with Ritchie, the play the film broad. After all, it’s hard to miss if you’re willing to swing wide. Cavill and Hammer are both playing archetypes, but bounce well off each other and manage to make even the corniest punchlines work.

Flying Solo...

Flying Solo…

(Cavill is quite impressive here. It may be too much to christen Cavill a reborn leading man in the wake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but the British actor brings an all-American charm to the role. As much as the script might try to convince us via laboured exposition that Solo is a self-interested coward, Ritchie and Cavill are smart enough to ignore that approach to the character. After all, it’s not as if the script supports it outside of having characters clumsily assert it. Instead, Cavill embodies a charming American archetype. Where was this in Man of Steel?)

Unfortunately, not all of the cast are afforded the same luxuries as Cavill and Hammer. The supporting players do not get nearly enough room to work. Ritchie has a bit of fun inviting the cast to play “where’s Hugh Grant?” for the first hour of the film, and the veteran actor has honed his ability to deliver smarmy deadpan over the years. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki get less to work with, playing characters who are subject to change depending on what the scene needs in a given moment, and whose arcs exist within the gravity exerted by the lead actors.

Couched in mystery...

Couched in mystery…

This is a shame, as both work hard with what little material they are given. Ritchie is a very kinetic director, and so it makes sense that he would gravitate to two lead actresses with considerable dance experience. Both Vikander and Debicki’s best scenes in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. are short sequences based on movement; Vikander playfully dancing with Hammer in their hotel room, while Debicki swoops down over a drugged Cavill like a bird of prey going in for the kill.

Ultimately, both Vikander and Debicki feel like afterthoughts, which is a shame. Vikander never feels like a third protagonist, instead relegated to the role of human macguffin. Debicki should be the film’s primary antagonist, and the film suffers because it doesn’t provide her with enough substance to properly anchor the film. Debicki’s final scene is anticlimactic, but so is her entire arc. In failing to give its two lead actresses enough material, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t just fail them; it fails itself.

Then again, it is hard to get too upset with the film. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. breezes along inoffensively. The lack of any real weight helps the movie to gather momentum, which helps to conceal the fact that it has no idea where it is going. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is enjoyable fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

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4 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this movie – it was a pleasant surprise and is better than what a lot of the critics are rating it. A lot of fun. I hope they make a sequel.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Paul!

      • I thought the idea of using the split screen to make a montage of the attack scene (and therefore get through it quicker) was a good idea, rather than dragging the movie out by another 5 or 10 minutes.

      • That’s a fair point, but it did seem a little strange given the emphasis put on the brute force necessary to take the island. It might have worked better had the two leads just snuck in and had the same set pieces.

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