Josh Reviews The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
There is nothing particularly revelatory about Guy Ritchie’s new film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a nineteen-sixties TV show now reinvented for the big screen. Of the two films released this summer that are based on nineteen-sixties TV shows about spies, I definitely preferred Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. That’s a much larger-scale film, a more exhilaratingly fun adventure and also a story than manages to better balance tongue-in-cheek silliness with some actual narrative weight and stakes for the characters. But while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a smaller-scale film, it is not without its charms and doesn’t deserve to be ignored in this busy season of big loud summer movies.
Though the film tries to pack in a lot of crosses and double-crosses, its basic story is fairly simple. In 1963, with the Cold War in full swing, a handsome and debonair CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), and a tough as nails KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), are forced to work together to stop a group of former Nazis from building their own nuclear weapon.
That’s a great hook for a story, and I quite enjoyed Mr. Cavill (who played Clark Kent/Superman in Warner Brothers’ recent Man of Steel and what looks to be a plethora of upcoming Justice League films) and Mr. Hammer (so memorable in The Social Network) in their co-leading roles. Since this film opened with weak box office numbers, I have read some sniping on-line that neither Mr. Cavill nor Mr. Hammer were capable of carrying a film. But frankly, I think the two men were the two most successful elements of the movie. Whenever the two men shared the screen I felt the film came to life, while I got bored whenever the story strayed from them for too long. Mr. Cavill certainly has the looks to play an American version of James Bond, and I enjoyed his sardonic line delivery. Mr. Hammer, meanwhile, plays the film with a sort of crazy Rocky and Bullwinkle Russian accent, but it totally worked for me. It’s silly, but just the right kind of silliness for a story like this one.
Alicia Vikander has been getting positive press for her work as Gaby Teller, the young woman whom Solo extracts from East Berlin in order to help with the mission, and rightly so. She’s a lot of fun in the film and able to hold her own quite well with her two male co-stars. I just wish that Gaby had more of a fleshed-out character in the film. I liked the revelations about her that come in the second half of the film, and how they make Gaby a more critical player in the story. I just wish the film let us get to know her a little better. Gaby often felt more to me like a plot device than an actual character. That’s a weakness of the script, not Ms. Vikander’s performance.
Hugh Grant does some terrific work in a small role late in the film whose details I wont spoil. He gets the tone of the film exactly right.
The film is well-made, and Guy Ritchie clearly was having fun crafting this Cold War spy caper. I loved the score by Daniel Pemberton, and I enjoyed the way Mr. Ritchie played with split-screens during the film, particularly in the third act.
I guess the major weakness, for me, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is that everything in the film is good but not great. The film is funny but not that funny, the action is exciting but not that exciting, the performances are strong but never at the level of you-have-got-to-see-this work. I long for Guy Ritchie to make another film with the crackling energy of his two magnificent first films, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He came very close to recapturing that magic with the first Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr., though he then let us all down with the extremely mediocre sequel, A Game of Shadows. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is certainly better than that lame film, but it’s not at the level of Mr. Ritchie’s best work.
Still, I’d certainly be very happy to see further adventures of Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer’s lllya Kuryakin. The film’s disappointing box office leaves me in doubt that any further adventures will be forthcoming, but I’d be happy to be wrong about that.