By Matthew McKibben | August 14, 2015
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel
The world can be a pretty frightening place. It used to be you had to turn on the television to see how awful people could be to one another; now, thanks to social media, we’re bombarded 24/7 with a shit-storm of awfulness. Terrorism, plagues, environmental collapse, Donald Trump… when will the madness end? September 11, 2001, changed a lot of things (duh!), including spy movies. After you’ve seen Al Roker’s weather segment interrupted by the abject horror of modern day terrorism, James Bond parasailing in front of a tsunami just doesn’t have the same oomph as watching Jason Bourne take a dude out with an Ikea catalogue. We demanded shaky cam realism and shaky cam realism is what we got. Bourne was the standard, but even Bond couldn’t pass up an opportunity to reinvent itself to fit these modern times.
Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t out to reinvent the spy genre, but it’s also not meant to fall in line with the super ponderous spy movies that have become the norm. It’s main goal is to remind us that spy movies can be a whole lot of fun. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Bourne and Bond movies are fun edge-of-your-seat thrillers, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is out to put a little ring-a-ding-ding back into the genre. I love Bond, Bourne, and any time George Clooney gets all bearded and heads to the Middle East, but sometimes you just want to watch insanely good looking people trek across Europe in designer suits to a snappy Nina Simone-inspired soundtrack.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. begins in 1963, right as the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their most tense, especially in the East-West divided Berlin. The movie begins as CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is tasked with sneaking into East Berlin to extract a local mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) in hopes that she can track down her missing nuclear scientist father Udo (Christian Berkel), who has been kidnapped by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), a mix of Paris Hilton and classic Bond villain. Hot on their trail is a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). After a fun car chase through East Berlin, the two are reunited in West Berlin, where the Soviet Union and the United States decide to team them up so that they can better track down the lost nuke and avert World War III.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is essentially a Spy vs Spy story where the two competing spies are actually on the same team. And on that level, thanks to Cavill and Hammer’s chemistry, the movie totally works. I like the interplay between the two spies, as it ventures from out and out hostility to playful boasting and even a touch or two of sentimentality towards one another. These spies are very much each other’s equal in their espionage expertise and I liked seeing the friendly (and sometimes not) competition between the two leads. Alicia Vikander’s Gaby is mostly along for the ride, but as with all spy movies, there’s more to her than meets the eye. Despite each of the leads not speaking with their native accents (Hammer, an American playing a Russian; Cavill, a Brit playing an American; and Vikander, a Swede playing a German), they all had really great chemistry with one another, especially the Cavill-Hammer pairing and the Hammer-Vikander pairings (he’s the big pitbull and she’s the kitten constantly pawing at his nose).
I’ve both read and heard a lot about how this is another instance where Guy Ritchie substitutes style for substance. While this movie is highly stylized in nearly every possible way, I think there’s more substance here than the movie is given credit for. Hammer’s Illya is an expert KGB agent who lives his life one rage fueled outburst to another. Seeing his glacier slowly melt gives Hammer some real great moments to sink his teeth into. While it’s not always possible to tell if Cavill is a great actor or if I’m just kind of amazed at how handsome that dude is, he has some really great comedic moments in the movie.
I’ve always been someone who doesn’t mind a little lack of substance when the cinematic style or choreography is interesting. If movies are truly both a visual and storytelling medium, then it’s understandable that one often falls by the wayside. Quentin Tarantino is definitely a director who is able to perfectly match the style and substance ratio. In this, Ritchie is definitely doing a Diet Tarantino vibe, which comes through in everything from the yellow subtitles, to the comedic violence, and the spaghetti western style music. I wholeheartedly concur that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might be a little lacking on the substance, but Ritchie is one of the masters at making sure what you’re seeing on screen looks really, really good. There were a few times in this where you kind of roll your eyes at just how overly composed some of his shots are, but on the whole, this movie looks, sounds, and progresses in fun and interesting ways.
Daniel Pemberton’s score is undoubtedly a homerun. Combining jazz riffs, trip hop beats, spaghetti western guitars and more, his score is jazzy, catchy, and perfectly suited for the material. It’s truly unlike any score I’ve heard in quite some time. John Mathieson’s cinematography is really solid, too. If you’re going to be someone who weighs style over substance, you had better make sure your movie looks as amazing as this one does.
While The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t going to change the spy game, it is a breath of fresh air seeing a spy movie that knew how to wave its fun flag high. It is supposed to be fun, and it is fun. I kind of can’t wait to see it again. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t a pillar of the spy genre, but it’s not one that will be easily forgotten either. It’s one of those movies that when you see it playing on TNT some random night a few years from now, you’ll watch from beginning to end.