Aug 14, 2015

Movie Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

In The Man From U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie concocts a slick, hugely entertaining paean not only to the TV series he’s re-working, but to Sixties spy movies (and, indeed, European cinema of the era) in general. The result is a real treat for fans of the genre, full of knowing nods to specific films, but not merely a succession of references. While he could have used the same exact ingredients of gorgeous Sixties fashions, stunning locations, and sexy stars to simply recreate a typical spy film of that era (and I admit, I probably would have settled for it), Ritchie instead mixes up a whole new cocktail with those familiar flavors. Before we discuss that appealing tipple, however, let’s examine those ingredients on their own.

The sexy stars in question are Henry Cavill (The Cold Light of Day) stepping into the shoes of Robert Vaughn as American agent Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer (J. Edgar) taking over from David McCallum as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate), and Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager), playing, respectively, the somewhat stock roles from the TV series of the scientist’s daughter (a common variety of “the innocent” who was swept up in the espionage each week) and the femme fatale. Even U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Waverly (played on the series by octogenarian Leo G. Carroll, essentially reprising his spymaster role from North by Northwest) cuts a debonair figure this time around, as played by suave 55-year-old Hugh Grant. All of them look spectacular, and show off costume designer Joanna Johnston’s (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation) incredible Sixties-styled fashions to maximum effect… but they’re also all quite good in their roles!

Cavill demonstrates all the charm and good humor necessary to play Napoleon Solo (a character first dreamed up by none other than James Bond creator Ian Fleming*) and consequently manages to come off as a roguish ladies’ man rather than a leering Eurospy-type creep. He’s clearly studied Vaughn’s cadences, and is up to the task of delivering all the verbal sparring the script (by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) supplies him with, whether bickering with Illya or flirting with Debicki’s deliciously villainous villainess Victoria Vinciguerra. Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is a much different character from McCallum’s, affording him the opportunity to really make the role (in this incarnation) his own. He, too, proves up to the task. This Illya is a man of great passions. Imbued with as much DNA from Robert Shaw’s psychopathic Bond baddie Red Grant as McCallum’s Illya, he has a violent temper (which may disturb some fans of the series), but also a charming vulnerability. Hammer finds a great balance between the two, and makes his Illya a convincingly complex character when he easily could have come off as a Russian stereotype. Cavill and Hammer have a great rapport, and neither makes the deadly mistake of confusing cool with careless. This was the undoing of top tier actors Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in the 1998 movie of The Avengers. The best Sixties spy heroes could retain their composure and decorum in the worst possible situations without defusing those situations of their suspense, and that was a quality fairly unique to the decade. But happily, Cavill and Hammer manage to recapture it.

Coming off of Ex Machina and already lined up to play opposite Matt Damon in the next Bourne movie, Alicia Vikander is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and talented young actresses out there right now. Her role as Gaby Teller, the scientist’s daughter who seems to harbor a secret agenda of her own, may not be as demanding as playing a newly sentient machine in Ex Machina or a grief-stricken student turned WWI nurse in Testament of Youth, but the uncommonly talented Vikander imbues Gaby with enough strength and moxie to elevate a somewhat underwritten role to scene-stealing proportions. And her fellow female Debicki accomplishes the same feat, really relishing her role as the movie’s primary antagonist. Victoria is no mere henchwoman; she is the mastermind behind a nefarious organization’s nuclear terrorism. James Bond never faced a female mastermind in the Sixties, but they were more common on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Debicki stands right alongside the best of them (the very best of them being Anne Francis as Gervaise Ravel in two first season episodes). She’s a treat to watch, and I wanted more of her character on screen. Finally, Grant is just fantastic as Waverly, doing more of an homage to Carroll than I would have imagined, and turning a small part into a very memorable character.  

Besides the stars and the Sixties fashions, the thrilling locations are key to any great spy movie, and Guy Ritchie seems well aware of that, making the most of Rome, the Italian countryside, and, in an opening sure to please spy fans everywhere, divided Berlin. Cinematographer John Mathieson is no stranger to recreating that Sixties film look, having done so on X-Men: First Class, and he juggles a number of disparate styles of the era in this film and makes them cohesive. But my favorite look may have been the grainy, gritty approach to Checkpoint Charlie and East Berlin. The opening climaxes in a spectacular wall crossing, which, as I’ve said often, is pure catnip for this spy fan.

If the Checkpoint Charlie business automatically recalls the second Harry Palmer movie with Michael Caine, Funeral in Berlin, a scene between Solo and his CIA boss, Sanders, played by Jared Harris (remember, this movie is an origin story, and at the beginning Napoleon and Illya work for rival services, not U.N.C.L.E.) recalls The Ipcress File. In gourmet Palmer style, Solo (in apron) cooks a truffle risotto for Gaby. Sanders walks in and chews him out, reminding him he’s serving out the equivalent of a prison sentence for the CIA (like Palmer’s indentured servitude to MI5)—and remarking that the Agency doesn’t pay him enough to put truffles in his risotto. If this interplay reminds you of that between Palmer and Col. Ross (Guy Doleman), it’s assuredly not coincidental! In fact whole chunks of the first act come directly from The Ipcress File. (The third Palmer movie, Billion Dollar Brain, is not left out, either; the end titles deliberately reference Maurice Binder’s main titles for that film.) And, amazingly, this bit of business isn’t the only shout-out to Doleman in Ritchie’s movie! His Thunderball character, Count Lippe, also gets a namecheck later (albeit with a slightly different spelling), sure to elicit guffaws from knowledgeable Bond fans in the audience.

From Russia With Love, GoldfingerThe Quiller Memorandum, and the Eurospy genre as a whole are also among the numerous filmic allusions on display. (From Goldfinger alone we get a vault door, a helicopter, and an Aston Martin, with DB5's proving a unifying factor in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and, based on the second trailer, SPECTRE!) But as I said in my introduction, Ritchie isn’t interested in simply blending together classic bits into a straight pastiche. While the Eurospy presence is undeniable (particularly in Daniel Pemberton’s John Barry-meets-Ennio Morricone score, whose screaming vocals in later tracks would have been as at home in an Italian spy movie as a Spaghetti Western), Ritchie hasn’t constructed his own Italian-style spy movie in the same way the Italians themselves did it in the Sixties. Instead, his stylistic approach seems to be more “What if Fellini had made spy movies?” Ritchie’s camera luxuriates in the La Dolce Vita-style decadence of Roman high society (Vikander takes a sip at one point from the Trevi Fountain), and gauzy filters in loving close-ups of Debicki recall Antonioni more than James Tont. (It should be noted that these homages are purely aesthetic and not artistic; Ritchie has no interest in the themes explored by these Italian auteurs. Indeed, his Man From U.N.C.L.E. is so thematically slight as to be ethereal.)

Other stylistic influences come from the French New Wave, though some feel filtered through Quentin Tarantino’s modern day appropriation of them. There are many cleverly-edited flashbacks and time shifts throughout the movie (useful for revealing little bits of information after the fact, necessary in any good con or caper flick), and when we learn about Napoleon Solo’s background, it’s courtesy of the KGB’s dossier on him as presented to Illya. This comes in flashback as he watches the calculating Solo tracking him in the present, and since the briefing is in Russian, the information is delivered to audiences largely in subtitles (cutely designed in a font evocative of the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. title treatment). It’s an odd choice, but effective. I suspect it will pay off even more on subsequent viewings. I also suspect that the pockmarked Jared Harris, in his gray fedora, is intended to resemble Eddie Constantine, who, in the role of Lemmy Caution, straddled the worlds of Eurospy and French New Wave when Jean-Luc Godard elected to make one entry of the Caution series into an art film, as Alphaville

One thing Ritchie isn’t particularly interested in is action scenes, and he makes this clear from the start. While he knows he’s got to deliver his audience a few bona fide Bond-style setpieces in this genre (like the escape from East Berlin and a car chase that precedes it), he’s much more interested in the luxurious and tactile trappings of the spy genre. In the movie’s best sequence, Solo enjoys fine food and drink, to the accompaniment of an Italian ballad, in the cab of a truck as Illya engages in a furious, fiery speedboat chase behind him. The chase (itself a nod to From Russia With Love) plays out entirely in the background, seen through the windshield or in the truck’s rearview mirror, while our focus remains with Solo enjoying his meal. It’s a hilarious sequence, but also clearly outlines Ritchie’s own priorities and his fairly shrewd deconstruction of the spy genre (Sixties variety) down to its basest elements. Genre fetishes like good living and bespoke tailoring take priority here over fisticuffs. (Solo’s impeccable fashion sense makes for a good running gag, and in one hilarious scene that actually [probably inadvertently] ties in with The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E., he and Illya pit their senses of style against each other while critiquing Gaby's wardrobe.) Another key action scene, late in the film, is presented in elaborate Thomas Crown (or Woodstock)-style splitscreen. This technique again takes the emphasis off of the action itself and onto style—in this case cinematic style rather than culinary or sartorial. All this isn’t to say that there aren’t entirely satisfying legitimate action sequences in the film, but to illustrate that they aren’t Ritchie’s priority… an approach I found refreshing, and one which clearly sets U.N.C.L.E. as far apart from Bourne and Bond and Mission: Impossible as its period setting.

Those hoping for nostalgic reminders of the TV series may be a bit disappointed. Those things are all there (the gun, the theme, the acronym), but all in basically blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos rather than lovingly fetishized. (Jerry Goldsmith’s theme gets literally only a few bars, played on a radio—and not even from the most recognizable bit.) But that’s okay. Because while every little detail may seem like the most important thing when viewed through the filter of childhood nostalgia, the real essence of U.N.C.L.E. is very much on screen. It’s a Russian and an American working together at the height of Cold War tensions. It’s rich characterizations and onscreen chemistry. And it’s style. Oodles and oodles of style. Guy Ritchie recognizes this, and because of that he’s delivered one of the most satisfying TV-to-movie remakes since The Fugitive.

*While Fleming's role in developing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has been often exaggerated over the years, one contribution that was undoubtedly his was the name "Napoleon Solo." Interestingly, some elements of his Solo (from a memo reproduced in Time Life's DVD box set of the series) that didn't make it into Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe's TV show, like his penchant for cooking, manifest themselves in Ritchie's Solo.


Mark Zutkoff said...

Great review! I just saw the film and I completely agree with your points, particularly how the action was frequently placed in the background or de-emphasized through techniques such as the constantly changing split screens. Henry Cavill's American accent has a few slip-ups (he may have visited Canada, saying "bean" for "been" several times), and Illya takes some getting used to, but I was extremely pleased with the film. And that wonderful score by Daniel Pemberton, with some fascinating songs to match. Now where's your review of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation???

Mark Zutkoff said...

Almost forgot - not only were the sets and cinematography very reminiscent of sixties spy movies, but the character actors they got for several smaller roles had craggy, worn faces. Unlike so many of the "pretty boys" we see in today's movies - even for the villains or supporting characters - these showed wear, particularly Jared Harris, who appeared to be aged up for the film.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Mark! Good point about the character actors. On second viewing, I decided that Jared Harris's character's look was probably an homage to Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, in both Eurospy movies and ALPHAVILLE. The fedora over the craggy, pockmarked face? Given Ritchie's other nods to both Eurospy and French New Wave, I think it seems likely more than coincidence. (I've actually added a line about that to the review.)

As for my review of ROGUE NATION, it's been written for a long time, and will finally be posted soon. I'd intended to have a whole MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE week leading up to its opening, but an inopportune hand injury prevented me from getting those posts up in time... and then I didn't want to step on UNCLE with MISSION. So probably next week. After all, ROGUE NATION doesn't look like it will be going anywhere anytime soon!

Anonymous said...

Fans who want a new episode of the TV series will be disappointed, since it's a reboot, not a continuation.

I particularly disliked the portrayal of Illya as a thuggish Rambo type. And the plot device of the partners distrusting each other at first, and having to learn to work as a team, is a cliche. It was used in the movie versions of the Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Wild Wild West, and various "tough detective" movies. (Admittedly, it makes sense here, given the premise of an American and a Russian assigned to work together during the Cold War.)

Judged on its own merits, it's a not-bad spy thriller. I'm sorry that it was a box office disappointment, and that there probably won't be sequels.

And, after The Lone Ranger, anything would be an improvement for Armie Hammer.

Simes said...

I'm a fan of the original series. And I have to say - only just having seen the movie on Bluray - that I LOVED the film. OK, its not especially faithful to the series. But it has bags of style and wit. Solo's mannerisms and expressions occasionally hark back to those displayed by Robert Vaughn, and while Kuryakin is a radically different character, he comes over - as indeed all the characters do - as very likeable people.

Much impressed with Vikander and Debicki too.

Lastly, a fantastic score by Daniel Pemberton.

This film will repay repeated viewings and I think Ritchie did a fine job. What a shame that there's not likely to be a follow up.