The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Posted: August 29, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Guy Richie. Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki

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Its 1963 and debonair thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) has infiltrated East Berlin in order to extract Gaby Teller (Vikander) the daughter of a Nazi nuclear scientist. They escape to the West but only just as they are relentlessly pursued all the way to the Berlin wall by imposing KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.

The next day Solo is taken by his CIA handler (Jared Harris doing a great American accent) to meet his new partner. Illya Kuryakin!

After a brief tussle the two men are informed by their respective bosses that they will need to work together in order to foil a plot by Nazi sympathisers to get hold of a nuclear bomb. The bomb is being built by Gaby’s father, and so she will journey with them to Italy where they will attempt to infiltrate the Vinciguerra shipping line, owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), two of the Nazi sympathisers.

East and West must work together, but can Solo and Kuryakin overcome their differences to save the day, is everything quite what it seems to be, and just who is the mysterious Englishman stooging around?
I’ve always thought of myself as quite a Man from U.N.C.L.E fan, but it’s struck me recently that this love is based mainly on the U.N.C.L.E films shown on BBC 2 when I was a kid. These films (think How to Steal the World, The Helicopter Spies, The Spy in the Green Hat etc.) were usually cobbled together two parters from the show that were released cinematically in the 60s) and certainly I have no recollection of ever watching the early black and white episodes.

Still, Solo and Kuryakin, in the form of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, became iconic heroes in my mind, and so when I first heard tell that a Man from U.N.C.L.E film was on the cards I was both pleased, and a little scared. Various casting options seemed to come and go, some better than others—at one stage I think Tom Cruise was being lined up to play Solo; really, Tom? Do you have to take over every 1960s spy show?—until eventually Cavill and Hammer were cast and Richie was slated to direct. Suffice to say I was not exactly thrilled, and I promptly forgot all about it.

And then I caught the first trailer earlier in the year, and suddenly I got very interested again, because it looked good, moreover it looked cool, and funny, and sexy, and coming on the heels of Kingsman it looked like fun spy movies were back with a vengeance.

Then I saw the second trailer, which seemed to suggest that it was just a generic action film, albeit one with a period setting.

So when I sat down in the cinema a couple of days ago I wasn’t sure which film I was going to see. I hoped it was the first, but feared it would be the second.

Thankfully The Man from U.N.C.L.E is the fun, cool, stylish film I was first promised, and is very far from being just another action film. Sadly this seems to have affected its box-office, in the States at least, and as I write this it appears the film has yet to make its money back.

This is a shame, because much as I like the brooding, glossy modern Bond films, and much as I like stupid action films where Vin Diesel drives down the outside of a building or Tom Cruise hangs off a plane, I also (as Kingsman proves) really like light-hearted spy romps, and in an ideal world they’d all be successful enough for a sequel.

Guy Richie really seems to be growing as a director, and it’s hard to believe the man who made his name with cockerny gangster films and big budget Sherlock Holmes-as-an-action-hero blockbusters has turned out something so gosh darned stylish, and that’s the first thing to say about U.N.C.L.E , this is one gorgeous film. The cinematography, the use of the Italian locations and the outfits are just fantastic. Richie adds to this by paying homage to practically every sixties’ camera trick in the book, especially multiple split screens, and at times it felt like I almost was watching a film made in 1965. That’s a compliment by the way.

Despite any reservations I might have had I found myself warming to the cast. Cavill makes for a very effective Solo, quite obviously channelling his inner Robert Vaughn most of the time. Napoleon Solo is debonair, urbane, suave, and probably every other synonymous adjective into the bargain! It’s like someone put Vaughn and Roger Moore in a blender! At times he slips perilously close to parody, but thankfully stays the right side of the line and he’s, quite frankly, a hoot.

As Kuryakin Hammer is less obviously riffing on McCallum’s icy cool, his Kuryakin is more physical, perhaps less thoughtful, but though he’s initially presented as an almost Schwarzeneggerian beast, as the film progresses we see through the exterior to the real man beneath, and at times it’s possible to see the boyish charm that McCallum did so well shining through in his portrayal.

Both men are equally good, Cavill’s just broader and Hammer more nuanced. Whether either man needed the revised backstories they get is debatable, there is a lot of exposition, but in another way it’s refreshing, Solo and Kuryakin probably have more character development in one film than Ethan Hunt’s had in five… they also bounce well off each other, their banter part of the joy of the film.

It’s funny to imagine that a year ago I had no idea who Alicia Vikander was, yet now I’ve seen her give two great—and very different—performances in the space of nine months. Her Gaby is spiky, brave and thoughtful, and whilst it’s doubtful the film would pass the Bechdel test she has more agency than most female cinematic characters in these kinds of films, even if she does eventually end up on damsel duties. She’s also downright adorable!

Elizabeth Debicki makes for a great villain, with her Victoria Vinciguerra channelling Audrey Hepburn with just a hint of Paris Hilton, sadly the rest of the villains are a bland bunch aside from a Nazi torturer, the one point where the film goes into quite dark territory.

Hugh Grant rounds out the cast as Alexander Waverly, creating quite an impression despite limited screen time.

The plot is wafer thin, and the nuclear bomb threat quite old school (but then it is an homage to 1960s’ spy films) and at times I couldn’t shake the feeling that style was being given precedence over substance, but what style! The humour is well handled without this ever becoming an Austin Powers style parody, my favourite bit is the boat chase happening in the background whilst Solo enjoys a midnight snack, the main cast are great, the outfits fab, the soundtrack (aside from the glaring omission of the original theme—though I am advised it is in there) excellent, especially for an almost spaghetti western twang to it, the cinematography wonderful and the pacing spot on.

It might be a trifle too lightweight and frothy, it lacks huge action set pieces and repeat viewings might expose that it really is style over substance, but it still exudes cool and is a lot of fun. It might not have the visceral kick to the head quality of Kingsman, but it’s still a really enjoyable film and I’d like to see a sequel, so I encourage everyone to go see it!

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Comments
  1. Mim says:

    It’s fluff, but it’s good fluff. And, really, no more shallow than a lot of 1960s spy-fi was. I loved the look of the film, though the clothes nerd in me was screaming that the clothes were about five years after the film was supposed to be set. It did look so VERY 1960s, though, didn’t it? Definitely one of the most stylish films of the year.

    • starkers70 says:

      Fluff’s just fine so long as it’s enjoyable, and this is really enjoyable. I’m hoping it does enough business on DVD to justify a sequel (but then I’m still waiting for Dredd 2 on that score)

      Obviously I’m no expert when it comes to vintage clothing, but I have to admit I thought it looked more late sixties than early sixties…

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