Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (UK & US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
If you have a particular preference for buddy cop movies set in 1960s Eastern Europe (technically it is Western Europe but the prevailing Cold War atmosphere favours the former) starring a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian and Swede playing a German, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is absolutely your kind of film. For those whose tastes spread more generally, Guy Ritchie’s latest adaptation is still an enjoyable and, for the most part, enticing action flick.
The director’s trademark style is plain to see — though in no way plain — from the beginning. We are introduced almost immediately to Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo, an exceedingly well kept CIA agent whose mission takes him to East Berlin where he must track down mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). KGB handyman Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is also after Teller, whose family has ties to a complicated plot involving Nazi experimentation and nuclear weaponry.
An opening duel between the opposing operatives lights the fuse on a two hour game of one-upmanship. It’s almost comic book-ish, with kinetic pans across bleak urban locales and camera zooms in towards an extended car chase providing much verve. This early sequence in particular harkens back to Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series, the dark and shadowy inflections of Victorian London incorporated again here, reflecting our two protagonists’ use of stealth and smarts as they attempt to gain the upper hand (shades of grey and black diagonally segment Solo’s face in scrumptious Hitchcockian fashion). The rest of the movie is mostly bright, its colour palette part of the confident — arrogant, even — bulbous energy.
Solo is no Han, though he and Teller do share a smidgen of Han and Leia’ feistiness (none of the romance). The agent exudes sarcasm and is a smarmy git, but Cavill’s cool swagger draws our affection; at one point Solo, in the midst of passing out, perfectly positions a few pillows beneath his head. The characterisation isn’t always this strong — Vikander’s seemingly distant chess piece stumbles through a faltering arc during which her actions are never really vindicated. The most egregiousness part is Teller and Kuryakin’s will-they-won’t-they relationship which feels too blasé for a film that is trying to be clever and slick.
There is a confident flow to proceedings when the two male leads are bantering back and forth. They are spies by trade but also convince as fashionistas, socialites and passive fiancés (well, sort of). Aside from the excellent opening, a team-up mission that both men wish to keep a secret is the film’s most entertaining occasion. It’s like an affair that neither operative wants to go public, and you buy into the individually-driven egotism each man displays.
Both actors assume their roles — Cavill as the upmarket Bond, Hammer as the brutish Bourne — with ease, a notion perhaps best embodied by a gadget-off at the beginning of said mission that sees Solo’s technical prowess out-muscled by Kuryakin’s straight-to-the-point mantra. The entire heist is a fine experiment in combative wit and told-you-so derision.
At one point we see then-President John F. Kennedy within the confines of a television screen, a reminder that events are unfolding in a paranoid and antagonistic setting. Ritchie needed to inject more of this uneasy tone, and should’ve taken a page out of The Winter Soldier’s book in doing so. It should be noted that John Mathieson’s crisp cinematography does evoke an effective era look, richly textured and striking in delivery.
But as snazzy a period piece as it is, the movie shares the same unfortunate lack of interest in exploring the suspicious undercurrents of its period as Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. We only really get broad East versus West strokes. The violence is kept to a minimum, which hampers any prevailing danger — greater bite would have upped the ante. It doesn’t have to be Fury, but an additional layer of grit would’ve assisted in shifting the characters from comic sketches to real-ish people.
There is an awful lot of exposition laced throughout too — the film disguises this information overload by getting most of it out the way in a snappy manner, zipping through newspaper clippings and newsreels during action lulls. “Whoever has that disk will simply be the most powerful nation in the world,” one character informs us before reaching through the screen and administering a collective elbow nudge to the audience.
The plot is quite messy. A plethora of agents, spies and turncoats are all invoked though many arrive without a sufficient backstory, or with a rushed one at best. Take the Vinciguerras for example, a villainous power couple who only seem to radiate villainy because they happen to be a power couple. As such it becomes increasingly difficult not only to engage with whichever talking head is around, but also to follow the intricacies of who is motivated to do what and why.
Hugh Grant shows up every now and again as Waverly (because he’s British — he even mutters the line, “Yes please. Thank you very much,” to compound the polite British stereotype). But Grant is so poised and brilliant in the role that it works. He’s a scene-stealer, possibly the best aspect of the movie. Now there’s at least one man from U.N.C.L.E. who deserves a sequel.
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures