The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
In a year that could end up becoming best remembered for its slew of exciting spy movies, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may end up being the most forgettable.
Like movies adapted from video games, films based on television shows have largely fared poorly. You would think that television shows about spies would be an easy transition to the big screen, but the track record suggests otherwise. I Spy, Get Smart, The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, The Equalizer, and Inspector Gadget are just a few of the spy-themed shows that have attempted to make the jump and failed to find success. The exception is Mission: Impossible, of course, which has found a comfortable groove to exist in all its own. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is not an exceptional success story like it’s current competition at the box office. Unlike Rogue Nation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. never feels comfortable with what it is trying to do, and audiences are going to feel that uncertainty. Mission: Impossible has had about 20 years and 5 films to figure out what works on the big screen. These other TV-show based spy films didn’t have that luxury, and as new ones are released they run the risk of treading on territory that audiences have already seen and not liked before. That is exactly the issue with Man From U.N.C.L.E.
It is very difficult to find the correct balance between comedy and seriousness. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. finds this out first hand. The film veers towards cheekiness more so than dealing with high-gravity topics. The victims of this decision are the audience, who are left in a void between wanting to enjoy the humor, but also understanding that there are serious issues abound that are never really addressed. I understand the film may be trying to recapture the feel of the television show upon which it is based, and being a child of the 90’s I can’t comment on whether or not that is achieved, but I know when a film doesn’t live up to its own premise. This is a film that takes place in the 60’s, the height of the Cold War. It should be driven by the tension and fear that it brings up and then abandons halfway through. Terrorists are threatening the world, yet nothing ever seems urgent or at-stake. The execution of the film is not the problem. It has the talent and ingredients to pull off something that should be exciting, yet it is not.
Entertainment Value: Guy Ritchie is known for creating exciting adrenaline-filled action sequences without resorting to CGI, and this film continued that trend. I personally was happy that the film had only one or two moments where CGI enhancement was needed to complete the action sequences. This is a film that isn’t trying to go bigger and better than other action movies, which is fitting for the setting and helps maintain Ritchie’s low-key approach. The film exists halfway between being a straight-action flick and being an espionage thriller, which is pretty much what you would expect from it, so no complaints there. However, the film fails altogether to create a feeling of substance beyond the enjoyment of watching it. As a result, the film feels weak and empty, which does nothing to convince the audience that this was worth their time or money. Good (3.5/5.0)
Story: The film starts off intriguing enough, throwing the audience into the Cold War and showing a struggle between American and Russian espionage teams. Those traditional opponents team up to stop a larger threat, and initially there is some focus on the difficulties of such an awkward pair-up, but by the second half of the film the sense of fear and danger that initially drove it is all used up. Instead, the film tries to keep the plot going with witty dialogue that isn’t always that witty. The main problem that the writers don’t seem to understand is that by choosing to set their film in the 1960’s you run the risk of treading over familiar territory. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. never ventures far enough away from the tropes and ideas that we associate with the golden era of spy films. With all of the implications that are possible in film these days, I expected more originality and creativity. Maybe the writers were under the impression that a new generation of film watchers wouldn’t have the knowledge so they could re-use these tired ideas by putting a little twist on them. But making assumptions about your audience is never a safe bet, and the twists that the film attempts end up being laughably predictable anyway. We know about double-crossing agents, we know how to look for familiar faces hiding in plain site, we know how that by highlighting specific details of evil plans the film intends to use those details later on to help the heroes prevail. No matter how charming a film attempts to be, you can’t hide lazy writing. Bad (1.5/5.0)
Acting: Henry Cavill plays American thief-turned-spy Napoleon Solo. He plays the character with a cool calm and collected demeanor, which is entertaining to watch. Cavil is perhaps the actor who fits his role the best in the film, although his accent has some issues. Armie Hammer plays Solo’s Russian counterpart, and he is also fun to watch. This character is cold on purpose and crazy, an interesting combination. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby, who the two spies need for her connections in order to complete their mission. Her interactions with the two leads is probably the best part of the film, although later on her character doesn’t seem as comfortable as she needs to be. Elizabeth Debicki plays the adversary Victoria, and she brings something different to a familiar role. The rest of the cast doesn’t feel well cast. Sylvester Groth is not diabolical enough for his role, Jared Harris playing an American makes no sense, Hugh Grant is caught in between bumbling and competent, and everyone else has far too little screentime to make much of a difference. Okay (2.5/5.0)
Direction: The most creative aspect of this film is Guy Ritchie’s direction, and even then I don’t feel like he went as far as he could have. He directs the action sequences with confidence and wit. In particular, a final chase sequence is the highlight of the film thanks to Ritchie’s vision and ability to create fluid camera movements. Throughout the film he comes up with a lot of interesting sequences to deal with the two main protagonists working alongside each other. He uses swipes and dividers to show them working concurrently, and at other times he uses quick cuts back and forth. The audience never loses focus on what is happening, even when the film splits apart. However, Ritchie himself cannot work any directorial magic to avoid the issues with the script. When the film thinks it is being clever by backtracking to events that just occurred in order to show you something that happened in the background, the audience feels betrayed. We saw what happened, we understand the implications, and we don’t need Ritchie to force feed it back to us and waste precious screen time. Good (3.5/5.0)
Production: The film doesn’t lack in production values. It blends the style of the 60’s with the clarity of today’s technology. The fashion and cars/vehicles may be the highlight in order to revel in 60’s spy culture, but the film also uses interesting lighting and cinematography to echo films of that era. It’s an interesting presentation that doesn’t feel 100% authentic but is interesting enough to watch. The special effects aren’t always great, they can feel cartoonish at times yet completely serious at other times. It’s these inconsistencies that plague the film and make the audience question what it ultimately is trying to be. One thing that is consistent is the music, which is memorable but repetitive, for better or for worse. In all, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is never ready to commit to what it wants to be; either a whimsical throwback or taken seriously. I understand that the environment of 60’s spy films wasn’t always serious to begin with, but the film brings up genuinely significant topics along the way that are never fully addressed. Those wanting a movie that throws caution to the wind in order to enjoy the spoils of 60’s spy culture will find plenty of buzzkill. Those wanting a serious, but entertaining thriller dealing with the implications of two Cold War nemeses working together won’t find the footing they’re looking for either. Everyone loses. Okay (2.5/5.0)
What's Bad: Intelligence-insulting script which all but lacks substance, head-scratching casting, lack of creativity, so-so special effects, confused as to whether it wants to be serious or comedic.