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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

This year seems to be a banner year for spy films–or maybe just for old franchises: between Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and in November Spectre, fans of classic secret agent men certainly have a lot of choices. But unlike Bond and Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed a bit out of place; it's not a franchise that has enjoyed continued acclaim–Hell, for most people under the age of 40, the name of the show that ran from 1964 to 1968 may not even ring a bell. On the very surface, it might look like a cash grab from, but there is a very important element that makes that (maybe) not quite all it has to offer: that of director Guy Ritchie, of Snatch and Sherlock fame.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. opens with stylish credits that set the stage: Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), an American agent with a criminal past, is in post-WWII in Berlin. He crosses into East Berlin, followed closely by the inhumanly strong KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), as he attempts to exfiltrate the German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) to West Berlin. Much high class spycraft fun is had, but the higher ups have a bigger job in mind: all three leads must work together to find Gaby's atomic scientist father, who is being held by ex-Nazis and being forced to create easy-made atomic bombs. Of course, the two opposing agents are not thrilled about working together, and neither is Gaby, who can hold her own and often ends up keeping the boys from killing each other.

The first thing to notice about the film is how incredibly stylish it is. This is no surprise coming from Ritchie, who is known for his bold and fast-paced storytelling, but its been four years since the subpar Sherlock sequel, and fifteen since the career defining Snatch, so expectations were understandably held at a cautiously optimistic level. While this may not be his best, it certainly ought to bring him back into the spotlight: the film has an overall style that is unlike that of any other auteur, and it permeates every aspect of the movie. Of course the two biggest elements are the music, which is full of heavy mid-tempo grooves and machine gun drumming that pumps up the action, and the editing, which is simply phenomenal. It is full of impressive and incredibly engaging split screens, montages that are far more entertaining than they should be, but also knowing when to hold the camera to keep a gag going.

And speaking of gags, the movie is refreshingly funny; and not just the goofy one-liners that are unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) an important standard in all spy films. It actually uses a lot of very smart visual humor that works solely because of the framing and perspective of the camera, where the characters are obliviously in the foreground while something totally crazy is happening in the background that negates what they're saying. It's used a few times, and definitely got the biggest laughs, but there are some funny character bits in there as well.

Certainly one of the biggest question marks about the movie was it's cast, especially with its two leads both having tasted success (Man of Steel and The Social Network, respectively), but not quite having lived up to that promise yet. After seeing the movie, it's still a bit of a question mark. Individually, all three leads do a fine job; Cavill in particular works very well as the debonair and never flustered American agent, but Vikander and Hammer have their moments as well. The only issue is that the chemistry that could have been there in a story that might have depended on their infighting and potential love triangle just isn't there. I didn't really buy that Solo and Kuryakin despised or grew to respect each other based on their performance, and the oft interrupted romance between Kuryakin and Teller feels stunted–it would've worked better to have explored it more or dropped it altogether. However, the style of the movie took a lot of focus away from this flaw; rather than breaking the movie, it just remains as a slight problem. It should also be mentioned that the casting of Hugh Grant as the British agency's director was an inspired choice that oozes charm and dry British humor.

Looking at The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in comparison to its competition in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is harder than I initially thought; the two don't share that much in common outside of their genre and origins in '60s television. Where Mission Impossible relies heavily on massive spectacle and impressive stunts to keep things rolling, U.N.C.L.E. instead leans on fantastic retro style and filmmaking chops. McQuarrie does a great job putting together a solid action movie, but outside of the action beats and some clever moments, there's nothing as memorable as the many uber cool cinematic language that Ritchie and editor James Herbert explore with U.N.C.L.E.

All in all, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a definite see for fans of retro spy fun and fancy, bold editing–even if you're not steeped in the language of film and you can't quite articulate why, you're almost guaranteed to walk away thinking you just saw something "very cool."

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