The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The first thing that has to be cleared up about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that it’s not the 1960s television series. Obviously, the movie is never the same as its source, nor should it be. But other than the names and general situations, I’m not quite sure what connection Guy Ritchie intends between the two.
That’s not to say that the movie is automatically bad. In fact, it’s generally entertaining and fun as an action flick, but not what you might expect if you come in as a fan of the show. It’s something more like the relationship between Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the original Inglorious Bastards: take the outline of a macaroni war movie, layer it over with whatever stylistic filters Tarantino has in mind, and out from the other side you get something that bears only a passing resemblance to what went in.
In this case, the filters are very heavy on the 1960’s era ambiance, and they do look gorgeous. But they’re pretty clearly coming from us today, looking back on the ’60s as tourists. For instance, Ritchie loves the cubistic, “multi-dynamic” technique, where the screen gets broken up into a bunch of smaller images that show different aspects of the action. It’s fun and retro and meticulously executed, except for the small matter that it’s not actually from the series. That’s from The Thomas Crown Affair, which premiered almost six months after the last episode of U.N.C.L.E. aired in January 1968. It didn’t even exist anywhere as a cinematic device until the middle of 1967.
Still, as I said there’s still good here. The opening sequence kicks things off right as CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) tries to exfiltrate Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin, while KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) tries to stop him. The action is precisely staged and goes off like clockwork; one of the most fun and satisfying examples I’ve seen in a while.
But U.N.C.L.E. die-hards are already grumbling at this point: Solo and Kuryakin are partners, and their agency isn’t bound to either government. However, this is an origin story, because evidently everything needs to start with an origin story now. Soon enough, Solo and Kuryakin are pushed together on their real mission: seek out Teller’s father in Rome, where the Vinciguerra crime family has used him to steal nuclear weapons technology.
The art direction and compositions may be inspired by a retro idea of the ’60s, but the structure is decidedly bound to modern narrative conventions, and origin stories are only the start. In the series, Solo and Kuryakin simply existed ab initio, but here they get slapped with Complicated back-stories. Solo was a sort of thief, con artist, and profiteer in World War II — a sort of Milo Minderbinder character — who works for the CIA in exchange for his freedom from prison. Kuryakin — who in the series was extraordinarily well-read and secretive about his past — is now a giant thug with anger-management issues stemming from some past family trauma. Even Teller is given a difficult relationship with her father, radically different from the way they would have been portrayed in the series.
Anyway, off we head to Rome, where Daniel Pemberton’s tight, jazzy score from the first action scenes gives way to something more akin to Ennio Morricone’s work. The life of mid-century European luxury is lushly photographed, and Elizabeth Debicki is ravishing as the Vinceguerra family’s leader, Victoria. One set piece gives way to another, and we’re slowly getting the feeling that these are starting to feel less precise and more chaotic. By the climactic ATV chase across a Mediterranean island, we’re into full-on shakycam and split-second editing, just like a standard current action movie.
I can’t say what’s guiding Ritchie’s decision here. Maybe it’s some attempt to stylistically “modernize” the property to bring it in line with the current storytelling mode. All I can say for sure is that the last big action block looks awful, and even worse after the first big block showed us what Ritchie is capable of delivering.
Cavill is charming as hell, and looking more like Christopher Reeve than ever. Still, he’s no Robert Vaughn, as unfair a comparison as that may be. Hammer comes off worse in comparison with David McCallum — after building a career out of stiff, sometimes lovable doofuses, he can never pull off that mysterious charisma. It’d be a stretch even if the script weren’t working against him. And that goes double for Vikander, who just doesn’t get much to do here. On the other hand, it’s more than the female tagalongs got to do in the series.
But one thing does survive the transition from the small to the big screen: most of the movie has a great sense of fun to it. When you get away from the clichéedly-serious backstories and the “gritty” style of the later action scenes, it plays less like the Bond knockoff that U.N.C.L.E. started out as, and more like the sly, impish, playful show it pivoted to when faced with competition from the Adam West Batman series. It’s this playfulness, coupled with John Mathieson’s gorgeous cinematography and the mod-inspired art direction, that makes the finished product as enjoyable as it is.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.