Nutshell: Mod, hip and a gorgeous tip of the hat to classic spy films. Hammer and Cavill have great buddy film chemistry, and Ritchie knows how to give good action. The plot is muddled, but who cares when you’re having this much fun? I’d watch the hell out of a sequel. Grade: A-
I’ve heard of The Man from U.N.C.L.E TV series. It was probably even in reruns when I was a kid. But I was too much into horror stories and comic books to bat an eye at spy stuff. However, this chic, gloriously breathtaking movie tribute to the original moves spy stuff into the 21st Century while keeping its heart firmly in the 60s. And I’m glad I took a peek.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are CIA and KGB agents, respectively. Naturally, they’ve butted heads before (regarding an East German woman whom Solo breaks out of East Berlin, much to Kuryakin’s chagrin.) They both have not-so-squeaky-clean backstories, which makes forcing them to work with an agent from The Other Side that much easier. Why do they have to come together? Simple; get the baddies that are enriching uranium.
Think of this film as more origin story of two U.N.C.L.E. agents than coherent spy thriller. Because it’s not coherent. In fact, it’s a glorious mess that feels as if plot points were written on bits of confetti, and then thrown onto a storyboard. And it works. It works perfectly.
Why? Because Ritchie knows that flash is the name of the game in retro reboots. And he gives it to viewers in spades. Jump cuts, wide shots, extreme close-ups, split screens so shattered it looks like the side of the Partridge Family’s school-bus…it’s all in here. All that glorious noise doesn’t distract from the movie, it is the movie. Ritchie keeps it just campy enough to keep things fun, just busy enough to warrant all the boom-boom-pow, yet it still rings true as an honest-to-the-genre spy film. Nice trick, that. If I’ve lost you, think of it this way; the whole “get the bad guys” thing is just a MacGuffin for the real story, which is the bromance these two characters share.
Ritchie knows how to start a story with a bang. Or several bangs. Beautiful start-credits take you from WWII to 1963, giving viewers a mini-history lesson in the Cold War, complete with nuclear explosions, Hitler, and the building of the Berlin Wall. That sets the mood, so when the story starts off in 1963, you’re all set. Who’s doing what, and why? Don’t pin your ideas on any one possibility. As with Snatch, there’s many ways this plot’s gonna go. Enjoy the ride.
Cavill and Hammer have great chemistry here. It’s a testament to their chops that these two are able to go about the film in the usual stone-faced spy posture while still coming across as human beings that are slowly allowing humanity to creep in. Plus, they’re not exactly hard to look at. Hammer is absolutely lovely, yes. But good lord Cavill is perfect specimen as Solo. Practically unnatural y’all. You can’t help but stare, and the spit-and-polish 60s tailoring his character sports only accentuates that perfection. Good lord that man is distracting. Ahem.
The metrosexuality is strong with the two lead characters, and the juxtaposition of fastidiousness and straight-up badassery is lovely to watch. A scene where Solo and Kuryakin take Gaby out for a bit of a spy wardrobe upgrade is sheer bromance perfection. It’s the scene that’ll launch a thousand slashfics (actually, the slashfic writes itself in this film.) That’s not a bad thing, as these moments are definitely played tongue firmly in cheek, bringing levity to a film that’s filled with death, destruction and all-around violence. In-between scenes from the Metrosexual Olympics, Ritchie manages to provide believable character arcs for the lead characters, giving the film much needed grounding. And in a few scenes, Ritchie manages both. No spoilers, but there’s a scene with a picnic basket that’s an absolute wham-bam hoot.
The dialogue is whip-smart here, keeping U.N.C.L.E. from feeling too somber or overly serious. Solo’s advice to Kuryakin on how to not act like a spy? “…remember, take it like a pussy.” Anyone offended by this retro jibe? Lighten up, Francis.
Ritchie obviously has a reverence for films of the 60s, which makes U.N.C.L.E. enjoyable on several levels. A motorcycle chase leads to a shot that echoes The Great Escape. The use of split screens harks back to a Thomas Crown Affair. And the requisite about-to-be-tortured scene gets a whole lot creepier thanks to its Marathon Man feel. Even the daylight colors remind me of old Technicolor epics. Ritchie cribs from the best, and makes ’em his own.
Yes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is muddled and never really settles on anything for long. But that frenetic pace keeps the film from drowning in the ol’ ultraviolence; the cut-aways and jump cuts keep things from getting too ooky, and keep the film firmly PG-13.
The soundtrack for U.N.C.L.E. is used to great effect; Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” (yes, you heard that in Dirty Dancing), Nina Simone’s “Take Care Of Business”, and of course a ton of groovy Italian pop. They’re all there to keep things groovy. In fact, the sound editing as a whole is top-notch. A few action scenes are completely devoid of dialogue, with the soundtrack/score lending to the atmosphere. When Kuryakin starts to lose his hold on his temper, the sound fades and the silence amps up the tension and has viewers focus on the little tics and twitches that could explode into violence at any moment. An excellent job all around from the folks in the sound department.
So settle in and enjoy the show. Yeah it’s not very coherent. Who cares? It’s groovy, baby.