“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” – Spy vs. шпион

Written by Andrew Dodd August 17, 2015

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Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is director Guy Ritchie ‘s latest fast-talking, witty-bantered romp, which proves to be an undeniably fun, often clever, and largely entertaining piece of summer popcorn fare. While the light hearted tone and playful enthusiasm are part of the film’s greatest strengths, they also become a weakness for anyone looking for a spy thriller with a little more dramatic weight. Though it has a lot going for it, U.N.C.L.E.  may not have enough unique personality to hold up against the numerous other popular (or in Spectre’s case, soon to be popular) spy movies of 2015.

Set in 1963 during the peak of Cold War tension, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sees the pairing of two unlikely partners, the American super-spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and his soviet counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), forced to work together to stop a group of rogue former Nazi’s from stealing information that will enable them to create nuclear weapons. As they learn to put their differences aside, Solo and Illya must recruit the reluctant but integral Gaby (Alicia Vikander) to help in their mission.

“Things could get a little messy.”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. takes full advantage of the current nostalgia craze for fashion and culture of the 1950’s/early 60’s. While perhaps not as timely as Mad Men or X-Men First ClassU.N.C.L.E. still has the ability to show us just how cool and quirky the lifestyle of bygone eras can look. Style is indeed an integral part of U.N.C.L.E.’s appeal, as the use of 60’s music, art direction, costume design, and colour blend to create a posh and sophisticated atmosphere you can’t help but fall in love with. The soundtrack is especially strong, and Ritchie’s use of pulpy period music juxtaposed with scenes of action and danger helps U.N.C.L.E. distinguish itself from the competition. We can even forgive the use of so many Latin rhythms in a film that takes place mostly in Germany and Italy just because they’re so damn catchy. The film and its retro style, while effective, may follow too closely in the wake of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (and its sequels) which used musical cues and colour pallets too similar to avoid inevitable comparisons. Technically, U.N.C.L.E.‘s editing and action sequences keep the narrative moving and the energy high enough to engage even today’s summer audiences.

Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Henry Cavill.

Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Henry Cavill in “U.N.C.L.E “.

The cast is another strong element, with the friction/banter between Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin often carrying the film. The two leads handle much of what they’re given, and their comedic competitiveness is a highlight. Cavill may come across as a little wooden from time to time, but in this case it’s hard to distinguish stiff acting from a still character. Either way, it still works. Alicia Vikander succeeds as the spunky and headstrong Gaby, who despite mostly playing the damsel-in-distress role next to the two super spies, has enough empowering moments to not feel like a helpless or unnecessary character. The relatively unknown Elizabeth Debicki is strong as the scheming Victoria, seemingly savouring the delectably villainous role without sliding into the painfully campy.

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Elizabeth Debicki and Henry Cavill in “U.N.C.L.E.”

Depending on what viewers expect to see, U.N.C.L.E. may disappoint as a tense, edge-of-your-seat Cold War thriller. The plot is nothing new or extraordinary: an unlikely duo must stop the bad guys from creating nuclear weapons. It’s not abundantly clear what the baddies want to do with the nuclear weapons, but of course that’s not important. What matters is that two spies, one American and one Russian, must learn to work together. As a buddy-comedy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a success. As a high-stakes, espionage suspense film, it may leave something to be desired. The characters are so cavalier about their jobs (a tool used effectively for comedic purposes) that it’s hard to believe that they’re ever in any real danger. Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is so especially cool that one wonders if he actually cares about anything going on around him. When a film’s characters aren’t too worried about the consequences of their conflicts, it’s hard for audiences to be either. Even James Bond sweats from time to time. While The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may not be supposed to be a nail-biting thriller, and may not need to be, it seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity to have a film about an American, a Russian, and a German all working together to stop former Nazis from creating nuclear weapons during the height of atomic paranoia without a noticeable level of drama or tension. Oh well; I guess the world needs Cold War comedies too.

“For a special agent you’re not having a very special day, are you?”

Despite a lack of suspense, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is as fun, witty, and energetic a summer film as one could hope for. Its stylish editing and charismatic characters create a lasting impression that leave one longing for the culture of days long past. While the film ends with the obvious intention of starting a new Hollywood franchise, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may not be original or memorable enough to stand out amongst its harsh contemporaries and competitors. And it’s not really the film’s fault; perhaps 2015 just isn’t the right time for Guy Ritchie’s secret agent caper. In a year that already has five highly profiled spy movies, one more may be enough to make moviegoers say “uncle”.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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