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Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Premise: An adaptation of the television series. Set in the early 1960s, a CIA agent (Henry Cavill) and a KGB agent (Armie Hammer) are assigned to work together to foil a terrorist plot.

What Works: The films of director Guy Ritchie tend to have a signature style. Pictures like Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and 2009’s Sherlock Holmes often utilize quick camera moves, frantic editing, and extreme slowdowns and speed ups of the action. Ritchie tones down his cinematic style for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and it is for the better. The movie still has the cartoonish vibe of Ritchie’s work but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more coherent and watchable than some of the director’s other films. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an adaption of the 1960s television series and the filmmakers do a sufficient job of updating it for a contemporary audience while maintaining enough of a tether to the source material. The film primarily succeeds on the strengths of its three lead actors. Henry Cavill plays CIA agent Napoleon Solo while Armie Hammer is KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. The film opens with Solo smuggling a young woman out of East Germany while Kuryakin attempts to kill them and this nicely sets up the distrust and competition between the characters for the rest of the film. Each actor is given specific character turf with Cavill smooth and unflappable and Hammer angry and violent. Their banter provides a lot of the best material of the movie and Cavill and Hammer demonstrate an unexpected capacity for comedy. Of the two, Hammer is more interesting to watch because he is set up as a cold hearted killer and then slowly revealed to be more complex. The American and Russian spies are joined on their mission by an asset played by Alicia Vikander. She is more than a damsel in distress and Vikander and Hammer have some nice scenes together. 

What Doesn’t: In a full marketplace, comparison is inevitable. The year 2015 has seen the release of several movies that channel the James Bond films of the past. Kingsman: The Secret Service was a cheeky nod to the Roger Moore-era Bond pictures while Spy was an outright parody of the genre. Like those movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also pines for the spy films of the past and it mixes action with laughs. But in comparison to its competition this movie comes in third out of three. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does not do its action quite as well as Kingsman nor does it provide as many laughs as Spy. (Spy arguably outdoes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the action department as well.) The movie works overall but the fact is that other filmmakers have done exactly what’s intended in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and done it better. The serious portions of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. suffer from basic storytelling flaws. Chiefly, the movie underwrites its villains. The antagonist of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a married couple who head a terrorist organization and have developed a small atomic bomb. The villains of these kinds of movies usually have a motivation like money, ideology, or madness, but the villains of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. don’t really have any agenda. Actress Elizabeth Debicki makes up for some of the lack of substance with her performance but the character is virtually the same as the villainess played by Rose Byrne in Spy and Byne’s character actually did some evil things whereas Debicki’s character doesn’t actually do much of anything. That’s the other main problem of this movie: there are no concrete stakes. The heroes must steal the bomb-making plans but there’s no specific consequences if they fail and the ending lacks a ticking clock plot device that increases the tension and raises the stakes. The ending of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is especially flat. The movie does not come to a climax so much as it just stops.

Bottom Line: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is fun although not as fun as either Kingsman or Spy. The movie is enjoyable enough and it has a very likable cast but it falters on the action front and it’s a little too light for its own good.  

Episode: #556 (August 23, 2015)