The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

★★★

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The Man from UNCLE PosterDirector: Guy Ritchie

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.

The Man from UNCLE - Cavill & Hammer

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Mystery

Guess what the next genre is? It is a mystery, isn’t it? No, it really is a mystery. Okay, enough of the shockingly bad jokes.

Not one of the more prominent genres, mystery tends to flirt around the edges of just about every other genre, without actually sticking out. However, there are a number of films which are defined by their mystery element. Personally, I am drawn towards films containing a mysterious element over most other types of films — mainly in the hope that such a film will keep me guessing all the way until the end.

Mystery films tend to be hit or miss — either the outcome of whatever mystery is going on is surprising or shocking or entertaining, or it is not. It will be to nobody’s surprise, then, that the five films on my list I consider to be five hits.

I have decided to change the format slightly from my previous Genre Toppers posts. The reasoning behind this is that I think reading large paragraphs over and over again can sometimes get a bit tedious, so hopefully this change will keep things more interesting. This newer format seems to work well with the mystery genre in particular, but who knows — I may use it again in the future.

Zodiac (2007)

From the acclaimed director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the story of one of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killers, known only as the Zodiac. Boasting a strong cast containing Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, the film depicts the events surrounding the police investigation into the murders carried out during the 1960s and 1970s, and why the murders were occurring.

Where The Mystery Lies

Who is the serial killer known as the Zodiac, and what do the cryptic clues being sent to the police mean?

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Fincher’s target audience: Interestingly, Zodiac is David Fincher’s second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% of critics enjoying it (second only to The Social Network at 96%), whereas it is Fincher’s lowest revenue-taking film, grabbing only (yeah, only) around $85 million worldwide. Why? Primarily because Fincher aimed the film towards a typically older audience, rather than playing up its slasher element and in turn appeasing only “16-year-old boys,” as Fincher put it.

“Hey, hey Jake — I’m Iron Man.” “Yeah, whatever Rob.”

Style and the 70s: Obviously I was not around in the late 1960s/early 1970s in order fully understand what those years were like, but Fincher certainly goes a long way to making sure Zodiac captures the tone and style of them. Everything from smoky newsrooms to wacky attires are in full display here, and although the film lasts over two and half hours, it is worth watching at that length just to enjoy the cinematography.

Delightful dialogue: The performances from the three leads in Zodiac are very convincing, and this is helped in no small part by the deliberate and encapsulating script the actors exchange between each other. Fincher has a knack for using excellent, well-crafted scripts (take Se7en and The Social Network as two prime examples) and Zodiac is no different. Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and Ruffalo do the film and its words justice — in fact, the positive audience reaction combined with the lack of a well-rounded ending proves just how well the actors and writers have done to make the film so enjoyable.

Final Words

A slick, stylish and slow burning mystery drama, Zodiac keeps audiences interested through its exceptionally well-strung dialogue and interesting performances.

Exam (2009)

Released in 2009 and directed, written and produced by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam takes place in an alternative history and is set almost entirely in one room where a group of eight very different people must use their initiative to gain the employment they each desperately desire.

Where The Mystery Lies

The eight candidates are given one piece of paper and are told that the exam only consists of one question… but what is that question, and what is the correct answer?

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Unknown cast: A problem a film can sometimes face when it boasts a worldwide star is that the audience do not believe that such a level of star can actually be the character they are portraying (particularly if the character is a normal, everyday person). Exam benefits from a relatively unknown cast — apart from Colin Salmon, although he does not appear very often throughout the film, making his character seem even more important and separate from the candidates. The candidates themselves each bring their own nuances to the table, coming across as genuine employment seekers and making the film much more believable and engrossing.

“Phones to the front please.”

Simplicity is key: As you can probably gather from the synopsis above, the plot of Exam is very simple: eight candidates, one job, one question. That is it. Not only does this make the film easy to follow, it places more emphasis on the situation the characters find themselves in and adds focus to the characters themselves (in essence, this film is a character profile). The mystery is also heightened because it is not confusing — rather, it is intriguing.

Perfect pacing: Hazeldine ensures the film does not dwell on particular plot points, moving things along before they become stagnant, and coming back to events if need be. Again, this keeps the flow of the film just about right and ensures the audience’s attention is grasped and maintained. Also, the progression of the plot and the characters are both very well handled, generating more and more tension until the atmosphere becomes just about unbearable.

Final Words

Exam is the perfect example of how to make a small, low budget film with a simple plot and still be able to keep it intriguing, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Guy Ritchie helms this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as former adversary Irene Adler. The story follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to uncover the perpetrator of a series of violent murders and prevent this perpetrator from taking over the British Empire.

Where The Mystery Lies

Holmes and Watson must decipher how their familiar foe plans to control the British Empire — but how has the murderer returned from his apparent execution?

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

At home with Holmes: Robert Downey Jr plays an enormous part in how enjoyable this film is — his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is one of wit, intelligence, controlled chaos and downright hilarity. We are all used to seeing Downey Jr in charismatic roles (as Iron Man, for example) and here he seems completely in his comfort zone, which shows by way of  his mesmerising depiction of Holmes — rivalled only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the hit television series, Sherlock. But not all the praise must be solely heaped on Downey Jr, as Jude Law is very effective in working as a buffer for Holmes to play off of. Mark Strong is as menacing as always playing the villain of the piece and Rachel McAdams is delightful as Irene Adler.

“That tie doesn’t suit you.”

Visually unique: The cinematographers and set designers deserve a vast amount of compliments for their old-fashioned-yet-energetic set pieces. It is a tremendous achievement in making London appear as it did back in the 19th century, but at the same time upholding a sense of freshness. Craftsmanship at its finest, if you ask me. Also, the slow motion fight sequences look effortlessly assembled and add an extra dimension to the film.

Action-packed: Guy Ritchie certainly does not hold back in terms of fight scenes (there are plenty) and explosions (they are in there too). At its simplest, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining action film with plenty of well-choreographed physical encounters and a fast-moving plot which keeps the action going and prevents the film from losing its momentum. The action takes place everywhere too — from underground to occult chambers to the top of massive cranes.

Final Words

Quick-witted, funny, sometimes silly, but always entertaining — Sherlock Holmes is just about everything you expect from a Robert Downey Jr-led film.

Shutter Island (2010)

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island sees Martin Scorsese team up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since The Departed in 2006, and the fourth time overall (soon to be a fifth, with The Wolf Of Wall Street hitting cinemas in late 2013). DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. Marshals — Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule respectively — who attempt to uncover the mysterious happenings on Shutter Island.

Where The Mystery Lies

Daniels and Aule must find out the whereabouts of a missing patient, but what is the real reason they have been summoned to the island? (That is all you are getting, sorry!)

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Creating a separation: The chemistry between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is very underrated here, in my opinion. It is obvious that the two are outstanding actors, which is once again apparent in this film, but they also work exceedingly well together, in turn creating a sense of disconnect between themselves and the rest of the residents of Shutter Island. This is essential to the story, and thus the performances from both DiCaprio and Ruffalo (and also Ben Kingsley to be fair, who plays Dr. John Cawley) are a key part to the success of Shutter Island.

“We have no wi-fi here.”

Shudder Island: There is an eerie and unnerving atmosphere generated throughout this film, and the creep factor increases as the film delves further and further into the mysterious happenings on the island. The film switches for brief moments to an almost comedic tone, but that tone is swept away by dread almost as soon as it begins. The unnerving atmosphere is aided, of course, by the sense that the two U.S. Marshals, although called to island by those on it, are alone and not wanted.

Musical mayhem: Another major player in the eerie atmosphere, the musical involvement in Shutter Island is as close to perfect as possible. From the foghorn sounding booming interludes throughout, to the seemingly out-of-place uplifting belts of opera (which completely add to the intentional confusion and lack of transparency during the film), the score is outrageous-yet-brilliant.

Final Words

I am a big fan of when DiCaprio and Scorsese work together because they always deliver, and Shutter Island is no different — in fact, it is my personal favourite output produced by the combination of the two.

The Prestige (2006)

From the man who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, comes The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson. Jackman and Bale play two previously partnering magicians who have turned fierce rivals after an accident split the pair up. It is the ultimate battle of wit and nerve as each magician aims to better the other by creating and performing the greatest illusion of all time.

Where The Mystery Lies

It is a film about magic, right? Well, not entirely. Although a mystery element does exists and runs throughout — just how did he do it? (Again, that is all you are getting — I really cannot give too much away here!)

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Coming full circle: It would be a crime for me to sit here and write about what happens during the climax, because it is masterfully accomplished on-screen in my eyes. Everything from the beginning through to the main act (pun sort of intended), to the dialogue during the film build up to a quite extraordinary revelation, and one which I got nowhere near figuring out. I do not want to overhype the ending so much so that it will be an inevitable let down no matter what, but trust me, it is very good and it perfectly polishes off the non-linear plot the film possesses.

“Heads, i win. Tails, you lose.”

Caring about characters: Nolan allows each character to breathe (much like he does in the majority of his other films) and this allows each actor — even those whose characters only play a minor role — to fully develop their role and ensure the audience can become emotionally invested in them. The dynamic between the two duelling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is electric at times, and the lengths they go in order to get one up on each other become believable due to the hatred Jackman and Bale successfully generate. Less prominent characters such as Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, and Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife, add further layers to the main duo, whilst Scarlett Johnasson’s Olivia Wenscombe acts as a spanner in the works.

More than just magic: As I mentioned above, although The Prestige contains a lot of magic, that is not the primary focus of the film. For me, the primary focus is the tumultuous relationship between two men and all that their relationship embodies, in terms of trust (or lack thereof), deceit and jealousy. Using magic as a background their relationship and these characteristics bolsters the overall plot, but it is the three aforementioned factors which give The Prestige substance.

Final Words

When talking about mystery the first destination is always magic, and The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat — just when you think he is being slightly over-ambitious, he absolutely nails it.

 

So there you have it, five excellent mystery films. Here are some honourable mentions:

Final Destination (2000) — Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat (pun intended). But in all seriousness, although Final Destination is technically a gross-out horror, it does have that mystery element to it ensuring that it does not just become a gore-fest. Which is basically does anyway. I tried.

Phone Booth (2002) — Similar to Exam in the sense that it is primarily set in one location, Phone Booth is intense and pacey, with a decent lead performance from Colin Farrell and an extra creepy voice-only performance from Kiefer Sutherland.

The Da Vinci Code (2006) — At approaching three hours long, The Da Vinci Code had a fair amount of people almost sleeping, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tom Hanks is a guy I could watch acting all day long.

A Perfect Getaway (2009) — This is about an hour of really disconcerting build-up surrounding three couples, one of which has a murderous streak. Then it goes a bit too action-like and loses some momentum. Regardless, a solid whodunit outing.

Devil (2010) — The mystery genre does tend to attract those single-location films, and we have another here, in Devil. Five people, one elevator and one devil… but who? A rare M. Night Shyamalan appearance in my blog.