Director: Guy Richie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: August 14th
James Bond’s SPECTRE. The Marvel Comic Universe’s S.H.I.E.L.D. We’re not short of suave agents and intelligent acronyms in big-budget Hollywood cinema, but just in case you wanted another one, here we go. With a single opening credit suggesting it is merely ‘based on the television show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,’ and multiple credits stating the involvement of producer/director/co-writer Guy Ritchie, it’s not hard to guess that this take on the iconic series will look distinctively like the work of Guy Ritchie, and that bears out.
Set during the height of the Cold War, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. begins with a high-velocity, fizzy delight of a chase scene, in which suave American agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is relentlessly pursued through Berlin by Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) of the KGB , while attempting to get a young mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin. Her father, Dr. Teller, is a famed physicist, suspected to be a hostage of extremist Italian fascists who are forcing him to build nuclear warheads. Solo’s next mission is to retrieve Teller and avert potential Armageddon with his new partner – none other than Illya Kuryakin, in a classic mismatched buddy comedy set up.
There’s no joking around with the highly aestheticized appearance of this 1960s spy caper, everyone and everything beautifully presented, but the film’s script is infused with light touches of wry humour and innuendo. Although, it has to be said that neither Cavill nor Hammer totally nail Ritchie’s style of comedy in the same way that, say, Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr., Ritchie’s last blockbuster double act from the Sherlock Holmes movies, manage to do, and this may be partly the reason they are not the most dynamic duo, together or separately. Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is debonair, well-postured and quick, but to me there’s a curious vacancy about him, no real reason to root for him over the cause until it’s just about too late. Hammer, the film’s second lead, is somehow even less compelling, despite also being given an emotional arc. Much like the rest of the film, style wins out over substance in presenting these characters in action.
Elsewhere, Vikander does well with the slim pickings that are the lines for a woman in a Guy Ritchie film, and Hugh Grant is effectively every bit the stereotype of the genial English authority figure as Alexander Waverley. Elizabeth Debicki as the movie’s prime antagonist, Victoria Vinciguerra, fares the best with Ritchie’s humour, chewing up the script’s double entendres with a delightfully languid, off-hand nonchalance.
Ritchie throws every kind of flashy, stylish manoeuvre at this film and some work better than others at disguising the film’s flimsy plot. From a cool, easily-digestible visual synopsis of the Cold War that plays out over the opening credits, to effective use of split-screen during a hectic operation, it all looks fantastic. His action scenes are, as ever, sharply cut and choreographed, and this film showcases more gloriously speedy modes of transport than The Amazing Race, with motorbikes, speedboats, ziplines, and F1 cars coming into play to keep the pace up. While there are flickers of the stylised violence that made Ritchie’s name, the film’s 12A certificate advertises some restraint – although a muted torture scene is made surprisingly uneasy by the psychological build-up to same, not unlike Casino Royale, but with less testicle-bashing.
Particularly ineffective as a narrative device, however, is Ritchie’s bizarre use of what I’d term elliptical editing, in which a scene will begin to unfold, only to cut away halfway through, resume nonsensically, and end abruptly, just so the protagonists can return to this moment later and proudly fill in the blanks. It’s inartistically disruptive, the filmic equivalent of empty calories, doing nothing other than unnecessarily bloating the film with Pringles of repetition.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is pretty, easy fun that never really transcends a formulaic Cold War caper, driving firmly in the middle of the road on the way to a familiar destination, but it’s in a luxury car, playing pretty good tunes which, sometimes, is absolutely fine.