Are You Turned On?
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. arrives in a summer bursting with big budget sequels as a dark horse of sorts. There was no massive franchise that would guarantee it some semblance of immediate traction, which works both against and in favor of it. Onone hand, summer blockbusters that arrive with built-in traction often create high expectations that are frequently doused by the final product (see: Terminator: Genisys and Jurassic World). On the other hand, however, that immediate traction can buoy the financial lifeline of a movie and potential franchise considerably. U.N.C.L.E. may be a bit lost in the summer shuffle financially with blockbuster heavyweights all around it, but it does arrive without the built-in consideration, which certainly helps the final product feel far less derivative than the other two aforementioned films. Adapted from a 1960s television series of the same name, U.N.C.L.E. shares most of its DNA with the Mission: Impossible franchise and the pre-Skyfall James Bond films, eschewing the quiet espionage of John le Carré in favor of a more bombastic style. Director Guy Ritchie, whose previous credits most notably include the Robert Downey, Jr.-helmed Sherlock Holmes films, had a tough job in crafting a film that would espouse the fun espionage elements while retaining enough of an original streak so as not to get lost in the shuffle. He largely succeeds and a good chunk of that is him espousing the strengths of the source material, where in its original outing, the show kept a comedic thoroughfare in stark contrast to its high stakes proceedings and somehow made the tricky blend work in perfect balance.
The plot is easily the weakest aspect of the film, the chink in the armor that doesn’t stagnate the entire endeavor too significantly because it’s apparent that it wasn’t given a deliberate amount of dramatic heft to begin with. Not that that excuses the clumsiness of the story, however. An extra layer of cleverness could have polished it considerably without significant, or any, complications. As it stands, the plot is fairly uncomplicated and at times even considerably derivative of Cold War storylines that have been done in the past. There is the obligatory nuclear device because there has to be one and while the clock countdown to the inevitable doomsday is only slightly less derivative, the film at a certain level understands the sheer ridiculousness of those clichés and avoid making it more dramatic than it really needed to be. If one starts poking holes throughout the plot construction, the leakage is vast and inevitable. There is a wealthy Italian heiress who is the head of a global criminal organization and wants to acquire a nuclear scientist to construct a weapon. Considering the mutual threat to both Cold War superpowers, the CIA and the KGB decide to join forces under the guidance of MI6 while using the daughter of said scientist to grab the weapon themselves. In a grand scheme of things, that plot isn’t too byzantine, but it’s the small details of introspective logic that don’t hold up and simply cause far too many questions to be asked.
The characters are the key to the film working nearly as well as it does, played with intersecting nationalities and a keen sense of sexiness and ostensible charm. Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and the delightfully ubiquitous Alicia Vikander are a fantastic trio in opposition to Elizabeth Debicki, who gives a great turn as a sharp, vivacious villainess. Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is a war veteran turned art con with a penchant for using his ubiquitous charm to steal before anyone even notices what is happening. A serial womanizer, his cool boy demeanor stands in sharp contrast to Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, a seemingly stereotypical KGB officer whose given enough dramatic weight to be anything but. Vikander’s Gaby Teller is a tough, smart, sassy woman who has far more important things to tackle than the pissing match between Solo and Kuryakin and isn’t afraid to take the two down when necessary. Debicki’s Victoria Vinciguerra steals the scene here, however, and it’s not just because she is nearly unrecognizable from her previous turn as Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. More often than not, it’s the villains who can truly make or break a film and the same stands her. Vinciguerra’s sharpness makes her stand out amongst many of the summer’s absurdist villains, most notably at the climax where the film fools you into a quick lull of false security before she undoes it in a single piece of dialogue. My one quibble here would be specifically in relation to Gaby, whose given fantastic characterization and toughness throughout the film, only to be let down by the climax where her character is sidelined in favor of Solo and Kuryakin. If U.N.C.L.E. comes around for another visit, that is certainly an aspect I would like to see improve.
One could argue convincingly that chemistry between the cast is the true glue here that makes everything click, every scene (no matter the logic or lack thereof within the narrative) feel more substantive than it really has any right to feel. The authenticity of the chemistry, however, is buoyed significantly by the script, whose weaknesses in plot certainly don’t hamper its ability to be hilariously witty. The sexual innuendoes in the dialogue, of which there are plenty, never feel forced, slipping right into the conversations without any deliberate effort. The comedic timing is fantastic, as the style of the film inherently requires and Ritchie does a fantastic job at keeping the comedy going at a brisk enough pace to where the jokes keep on rolling but don’t draw out their welcome. The juxtapositions of the comedy against dire circumstances are fairly clever, such as a standout scene in this regard being a certain boat chase where one character is between life and death and another is making their way through an Italian picnic basket. The soundtrack is thrilling and the costuming is the most chic anyone will see on screen all year (especially if you are suffering from Mad Men withdrawals). Ritchie’s direction is fairly strong but there is an awkwardness where he adopts a framing device and the screen is split off into various sections. It’s stylish, as the rest of the film unabashedly is, but it does manage to detract from the action sequences by taking an inherent excitement and creating bemusement where none needed to exist in the first place. The overall thrill remains top-notch, however, and never for a moment was there a feeling of boredom. If this cosmopolitan spy trio comes back for another round, I’d be more than willing to strap in and enjoy the ride, provided there’s an Italian picnic basket lying ready in wait.
Title: The Man from UN.C.L.E.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Produced by: John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Lionel Wigram, Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
Story by: Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
Based on: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. by Sam Rolfe
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Music by: Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Edited by: James Herbert
Production Company: Ritchie/Wigram Productions, Davis Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Dates: August 14, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: The Huffington Post