Before the dry-as-vermouth seriousness of James Bond’s SPECTRE hits theaters in November, Hollywood has thought of four ingenious ways to make the spy genre more appealing. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE took a bombastic, bloody brilliant approach. SPY went beyond traditional “spoof” territory, gifting us with lots of well-executed laughter. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION was intelligent intrigue amidst spectacular stunt sequences. Now we’re given director Guy Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Based on the TV show hardly anyone remembers, this highly-stylized picture is like mainlining 60’s European glamour. While it’s a little lacking in substance, it makes up for it in a multitude of other ways.
The plot is thankfully straight-forward without an ounce of convolution: CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is forced to team up with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) in order to save the world from nuclear decimation. They are dispatched to take down the Vinciguerra Empire – led by a very villainous Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the corporate head looking to harness and unload nuclear weapons and tech. The dynamic duo’s only lead is Gaby Heller (Alicia Vikander), the most gorgeous mechanic ever/ daughter of a missing German scientist. At their disposal are charm, wit, skills and gadgetry to disarm those opposing them. A race against the clock ensues to track down Gaby’s dad in order to prevent disaster of epic proportions.
From the very first car chase in act one, it’s clear Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have done the seemingly impossible: they’ve given stars Cavill and Hammer personality, pizzazz and vibrancy – something no one had really done before. In addition to being incredibly handsome, and having the screen presence to carry a big-budget film, the pair have many moments to showcase their witty repartee (game strong) and adversarial chemistry (game solid). The best scene to bring style, narrative and music together is in the café when Solo presses Kuryakin’s buttons, giving him the upscale version of “your mother’s a whore” while Daniel Pemberton’s heaving score swells. They also trade digs about fashion – and who doesn’t love that?! More successful attempts at sly humor are made with Ritchie’s staging of key sequences like the boat chase, Debicki’s delicious chair twirl, and a scene that involves a malfunctioning electric chair. As for the ladies (which this film does better by women than the Bond films do theirs), Vikander gives a decent performance, but it’s Debicki’s show. She’s captivating and stands to hijack it from the men.
It’s easy to magpie out on all the beauty on display. The cars! The clothes! The locations! Costume designer Joanna Johnston, production designer Oliver Scholl and director of photography John Mathieson have given us a visual buffet to gorge on. This provides a good distraction from a rather light origin story. Ritchie also utilizes some slick camera techniques like split-panel screens during the climax, assembling a fast-paced fight montage that propels things forward.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E should serve as an example for how Hollywood should update their stale entertainment products. Take a project no one has any affinity for, infuse it with style and class, add up-and-coming actors, and assign it to an auteur to make it his or her own.
4 out of 5
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. opens on August 14.