The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (12A) | Close-Up Film Review
Dir. Guy Ritchie, US, 2015, 116 mins
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris
Opening during an extraction mission with hilarious (and stylish, thanks to Mr Ritchie) consequences, the story finds CIA agent/former art thief Napoleon Solo (Cavill) attempting to bring grease monkey Gaby (Vikander) west of the Berlin Wall. KGB agent Illya Kuryakin has the same objective, and makes Solo’s mission very difficult to complete.
Going from this initial action sequence (arguably the film’s best, continuing this summer’s trend of spy movies that blow their load in the first ten minutes – ahem, Mission: Impossible) the plot moves speedily into the film’s raison d’être; the Americans and the Soviets are teaming up to stop wayward Nazis from developing nuclear weapons without the need for uranium.
The majority of the film’s pizzazz arguably comes from the interaction between suave yank Solo and hard-as-nails, rigid-as-a-board Soviet Kuryakin. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching the two interact, along with their varying approaches to the mission at hand, hot on the heels of femme fatale businesswoman Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki).
Cavill, for all his looks and swagger, remains as cardboard-like as he was in Man of Steel; a perplexing issue where it’s hard to understand exactly what is being lost between his performance and its effect on the audience. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could probably have benefited from a star with even just a tad more charisma, such as the previously-attached Tom Cruise, rather than Cavill, whose charisma extends about as far as putting on the smarmiest American accent he can muster with strange intonation choices.
Ritchie packs his film with engaging stylistic choices, including the now-typical technique of shoving subtitles onto the screen with a bit more flair and panache. Where are they coming from next? The left-hand side of the screen? Are they going to be in a straight line? Who could say! Beyond this, it must be vexing to the man for his former producer/protégé Matthew Vaughn to be upstaging him in the stylistic stakes with his own spy effort, Kingsman: The Secret Service, earlier this year. There was more personality and retro-feel in one scene of Kingsman then there is in the entirety of U.N.C.L.E. Ironic, as the latter is actually set in the 60s, as opposed to the present-day Kingsman, which merely evokes that feeling.
The fact is that U.N.C.L.E. loses steam about halfway through proceedings, bar one or two entertaining sidebars, leading to much watch-checking. There remains a good banter between the two male leads, with the differences in ideology between these Cold War adversaries being used to optimal effect, and both actors clearly having a good time. Hammer is the strongest of the two, his character’s backstory being used to great effect to give him anger management issues, leading to his nearly blowing his cover as a Russkie architect several times. The subplot regarding his father’s watch is one of the more engaging, and is used as good connective tissue between the two main characters, bonding them on a personal level. It’s refreshing to see main characters in a summer blockbuster actually be painted as people rather than servile mechanisms to the spy game (we’re looking at you, Ethan Hunt).
There are flashes of a great film here and there, between Hammer’s performance and Ritchie’s direction, but somehow it doesn’t all tie together. Every year there are blockbusters which are lost in the sea of summer, and for 2015 there is little distiniguishing U.N.C.L.E. from the crowd, save its period setting. In a year with four(!) other spy films being released, Guy Ritchie and co simply haven’t done enough to warrant first place. It’s simply there.
That said, the film does end on a high note, with Hugh Grant’s Waverly (arguably the best character in the film, mostly because of Grant’s effervescence) giving our characters their code name, opening the door for hopefully more entertaining adventures. If only their first had been more than just “watchable”.
Review by Dan Woburn