Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Film Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015; Directed by Guy Ritchie)

Sheer style and pure flash, Guy Ritchie’s slick and likable blockbuster take on the popular 1960s TV show about Cold War espionage rapprochement between American and Soviet agents is a maximal superficial delight. Liberated from the nagging canonical expectations that hobbled his energetic, actioned-up Sherlock Holmes films, Ritchie lets rip with his purest, smoothest entertainment since Snatch.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. kicks off in the dour but lustrous darkness of divided 1960s Berlin (Ritchie and cinematographer John Mathieson make this suffering frontier of Cold War politics shimmer with romance). G.I.-turned-art-thief-turned-intelligence-agent Napoleon Solo (the improbably handsome Henry Cavill) strides into East Berlin, his confidence as finely-tailored as his sharp suit (the clothes in this film are chosen and shot with the attention of an Old Master to delicate fabrics). He tracks down Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) at work in an auto body shop, and offers to spirit her away from imminent danger from the Soviet KGB agent closing in, intent on using her to get to her Nazi-connected Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) and the nuclear research of her presumably late father. She doesn’t feel like she needs saving, but is convinced to be extracted nonetheless.

The Soviet agent is the mammoth Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who earns dry quips of appreciation from Solo (Cavill is practically bleached bones in the desert in terms of dryness here, a sly delight compared to his dull, fretting Superman) as he tirelessly and skillfully pursues him and Gabriella through the night streets. The westerners escape, but the trio are thrown together for a special mission at the behest of their superiors, represented at first by the crusty Saunders (Jared Harris) and later by the suavely ironic Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant). Uncle Rudi is evidently in the employ of the slinky, wealthy Italian industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and might be passing along Dr. Teller’s nuclear secrets to her and her radical right-wing connections. Off to fashionable Rome and its sun-kissed Italian environs, then, for Solo, Kuryakin, and Gabriella, to thwart a dangerous world-threatening plot by Italian neo-fascists and Nazi dead-enders.

With the pieces thus set, they move, with a feline-like motion befitting a mid-century glamour usually understood to be irrevocably faded. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shines with a swinging sheen. Ritchie is in his element in a way that he hasn’t been since the sturdily stylish and witty British gangster pictures that made his name, and the result is uniformly enjoyable without ever being demanding or meaningful in any sustained way. Cavill, Vikander, and Debicki are all well at home with the snappy dialogue and crisp action, although Hammer, hampered by Kuryakin’s more laconic nature and heavy cartoon-Russian accent, does better with the latter than the former. If he is never Cavill’s equal as a quip-slinger, he surpasses him as an onscreen action figure, especially in Ritchie’s crackling hand-to-hand combat sequences, a visceral specialty.

Expert as entertainment, indeed almost peerless in Hollywood’s superhero-clogged blockbuster field, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has less to offer ideologically. The original television partnership of Solo and Kuryakin was a fictional fantasy resolution of Cold War tensions that seemed at that point permanent and intractable, while this period screen version gazes back with knowing nostalgia on those conditions in the rearview mirror of history. The time-capsule nature of the film, though it makes for a magnificent showcase of retro style, neutralizes the political dimension.

For a narrative concept predicated in politics, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is curious devoid of them. This is common enough practice for contemporary Hollywood spy films, which like other studio product scrupulously avoid alienating any demographic whose moviegoing dollars they might acquire. It’s the genre’s misfortune to be so essentially steeped in high-stakes political intrigue that creative decisions to lower those stakes in ideological terms stand out more prominently and unflatteringly. Thus unwilling to take sides in the Cold War superpower binary, the screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram reaches for the tried and true formula of villainy in recent espionage pictures: make the baddies nasty secret Nazis with nukes. There’s some clearly researched detail to this choice: Rudi is revealed to be a torturer and cruel medical experimenter of the Joseph Mengele type (his fate is a wry bit of very black humour), while Vinciguerra, in addition to literally translating from the Italian as “to win the war”, is also the name of an infamous neo-fascist terrorist.

Would a contemporary setting have been more pregnant with a more challenging form of political possibility (it’s not like the U.S. and Russia are without tensions at the moment)? Would it have even been possible, given the cultural profile of this given property? If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t terribly interested in finding out and much more invested in providing a skillfull, shiny good time, however, can anyone really blame it? I won’t.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: