The Man From U.N.C.L.E (2015) Review: Sleek, Stylish, and So-so.
2015 seems to be the year of the spy. Just last month Ethan Hunt and co. returned to perform their rather difficult assignments, in one of my favourite films of the summer. In as little as 3 months Daniel Craig will don the 007 title for the 4th time, returning to battle the titular organization in ‘Spectre’. Even the first major release of the year, way back in February was ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’, a film which seemed to pay homage to the movies that preceded it. In situations like this, it’s not unheard of for at least one of the films to suffer comparisons to another, and then be thought of unfavourably.
The same happened in 2008 in which a whopping 5 films were superhero based and judged against their peers. As different as ‘Hancock’ is from ‘The Dark Knight’ the two would still be discussed under the superhero genre umbrella, despite being completely different. When surrounded by genre competition, a movie has to strive to stand out. Even if any other year it might’ve been outstanding.
Unfortunately, while it’s not terrible, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’ doesn’t quite do that. Based on the 1960’s television show of the same name, the movie takes place in the very same swinging decade and follows the adventures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Solo, played by Superman is a CIA agent, and Illya, played by Armie Hammer, is a KGB spy. Both are the best their country has to offer, so when an evil organization threatens the very existence of those countries, the cold war combatants must set aside their differences for the greater good. Along for the ride is daughter of ex-nazi scientist Gaby Teller, played by Alicia Vikander, who is the key to stopping worldwide destruction and is under the protection of the two leads.
With all that being said, the premise works as one of the best parts of the movie. The idea of Russia and America working together sounds, as the movie itself laments, like a bad joke, but ‘U.N.C.L.E’ finds a way to sell the idea to you within its slick sixties backdrop. However, this wouldn’t work without the two lead salesmen. Both agents are the physical embodiment of their nations ideology and values. Solo is smooth, charismatic and full of bravado, while Illya is stern, structured and short-fused.
The way they approach everything from women’s fashion to espionage is so drastically different, that it helps to cement the sense that this is a far from ideal pairing. The two spend 95% of their screen time bickering and at odds with each other, so much so that they seem to forget the stakes of their mission. Instead of stopping nuclear annihilation, they more or less act as though they’re roommates in a wacky sitcom trying to live without killing each other.
Then again, maybe that’s the point, seeing as ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E’ plays as a very highbrow slapstick comedy. While the film does have its moments, I found a lot of the jokes fell flat for me. It seemed as though a lot of the scenes could have used tightening, whether through the dialogue or just the structure of some of the scenes. As ‘Mission Impossible’ understands, there’s comedy in tension, and in this regard ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E’ runs like a movie on autopilot. Every chase, every fight scene is dull and unexciting, save for a few exceptional moments. This makes the movie feel like a pseudo-Tarantino film, that’s missing the cleverness that would make this movie reach its utmost potential.
The movie tries to play with your expectations by giving certain scenes a plot twist. It’s not a new technique and it’s one that’s been used by director Guy Ritchie countless times before. You set up a scene, have it play out and just as it’s about the end, one of the characters pulls a Columbo and has just one more thing to say that’ll change the game. These moments are probably the film at its very best as it shows the cleverness of its characters. But even where this is concerned, the movie falls apart.
The last two scenes that use this technique do a sloppy job that comes across as an editing flaw. Prior moments would play upon your predictions, but the most important of these scenes seem to forget how exactly these scenes work. All the information that would be used for the big twisted reveal is given to you early and then given to you again in time for the twist. It’s almost as if you were given cherry pie for dinner AND dessert. That’s just too much cherry pie man. Which, if you’ve seen ‘Stand By Me’…
As much of a mess as I thought this was, it’s a very well made mess. It doesn’t take a film major to see that there was real work done on a production level. Everything from the set design, the costumes to the shots in the film, all of that works. Style definitely takes precedence over substance here. A perfect example is in the film’s opening scene, which is a game of cat and mouse between Solo and Illya. You get a sense of character, action and smooth operation from the way the scene unfolds. This is actually the moment in which the film works very best, but it never reaches such heights again. That is until the very end of the third act, which has probably my favourite moment in the movie that I won’t dare spoil.
The characters are well constructed and there’s a sense that you understand them as the film goes on, no doubt due to the performance by the cast. The villain of the film, played by Elizabeth Debicki is lackluster but serviceable, although her motivations weren’t made clear, probably because there’s not much for her to do than be a target. I have qualms about the fact that Illya, who is prone to violent outbursts, is the KGB’s top man for covert operations, when 9 times out of 10, his temper is the cause of near death situations. Some of the accents come across as silly but that’s fine for the tone the movie establishes. Overall, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ comes across as…well your cool uncle. There’s not much to him, he’s not the most impressive member of the family…but damn does he look cool.
Rating: Catch It On Cable