[Review] - The Man From U.N.C.L.E

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E is a movie where a not-quite Superman and an almost Batman team up to play James Bond. Where Brits play Americans, Americans play Russians, Swedes play Germans, and Hugh Grant gets to have a bit of fun at someone else's expense. Most of the other reviews have highlighted a "style over substance" mentality to Guy Richie's period spy thriller, but I would argue that notion. There is an abundance of style, yes, but the film is substantial. Saying that it has style over substance suggests that substance cannot be obtained through the likes of engaging characters, which this film has, or personality, which it displays in great heaps, or a unique perspective on the tropes of it's own genre, which Richie excels at here.

It also suggests that a film lacking in high intellectualism is worth more than a film that only wants to have fun. And that simply isn't true. The difference between being substantive and not is entirely in execution and poise. And The Man From U.N.C.L.E is perfectly executed, and knows exactly where and how it stands. It makes no great statements about the Cold War, nor does it attempt to subvert the litany of well-trodden cliches of it's genre. This isn't a film that seeks to change the world, its a film that wants to entertain, and in the process find those moments that allow it to subtly upend our expectations. And for all it's successes in those categories, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that, for being a special agent, aren't having a special day.

The biggest "flaw" in The Man From U.N.C.L.E is that the plot is thread-bare thin. And I put flaw in quotes back there, because it isn't. Pseudo-intellectual reviews have been arguing that because the plot is a very simple A-B-C chain, that it devalues the film. I would argue hard against that. I have stated on several occasions that the over-complication of plot, the modern need to keep heaping on plot well past a film's breaking point, is why so many serviceable movies are belabored bores. The Bourne movies especially are guilty of this trend, but it afflicts most modern action movies. If the Bourne series was a reaction and movement away from the Bond and 80's style simplicity, their success drove the entire action genre in that direction, including the Bond series, which has been as much Bourne in the last three films as anything. Now we see the reaction to that movement, and a return to blissful simplicity. A nuclear scientist goes missing, is forced to make a nuclear bomb for some former Nazis, and the US and Russian team up to stop the bomb from being delivered. That is the graceful elegance of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 

Around that coat hanger plot is hung a magnificently crafted suit of period affectation and incredibly charming and persuasive characters. There isn't an unlikable character in this film, and I include the villains in that statement. Richie has assembled a pitch perfect cast, happily unburdened by prior expectation (I cannot imagine Napoleon Solo being played by George Clooney or Tom Cruise in the movie as it exists). The standout is Henry Cavill, who is allowed to actually inhabit and bring something to Solo, unlike what was done to him in Man of Steel. As much as the film claims to be a buddy-picture, and as much as Armie Hammer is enjoyable as Illya Kuryakin, the film belongs to Solo. He is the point of perspective character though most of it, and it's through his perspective that the movie is framed. And that's fine by me, because Solo is charming without every seeming smarmy, capable without ever seeming arrogant. Just enough goes wrong for him to dispel any notions of superhumanism, but he's manipulative enough to make things go his way more often than not.

The entire film feels like a lost entry from Sean Connery's time as Bond, and that is entirely the point.  Setting aside the fact that Solo was created by Ian Fleming as an American response to Bond, and thus there is obviously going to be similarities, Richie's U.N.C.L.E. is what classic Bond would look like through the modern scope. Exotic locals are visited, but for purpose instead of checking bits of a globe. The villains hide out on an island lair, but for logical reasons instead of glossy overindulgence. Gone is the rampant misogyny, but without sacrificing flirtatious double entendres and express sensuality (Elizabeth Debicki performs her entire role with a feline predation that is fantastic). The token female love interest is female, true, but isn't token, is entirely capable on her own and not much of a love interest. Alicia Vikander, who impressed the hell out of me only a couple months ago in Ex Machina, does so again here as essentially The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The action is muted and believable, focusing more on what a man or pair of men can actually do rather than gumming things up without a lot of CG and gadgets. In fact, obvious CG is no minimal that when it does occur, it feels disingenuous. Instead, the focus is put on the achievable.

The greatest success of the film is actually in the way Richie approached the action pieces, and it was a refreshing change from the way action movies are assembled in Hollywood. Presumably as a side effect of his being British, and coming up in the indie British film system (the entire movie has a visual feel of having been shot in the late sixties in England, which if you are familiar with movies of the era from that place, you know what I mean). Richie's script, which he co-wrote, underplays action to a ballsy and magnificent degree. Gone is the modern notion of having a set piece every ten or fifteen pages. The biggest and most conventional set piece of the film is the one that opens it, a car chase. After that, the film eases into a pattern of avoiding overt action whenever possible. As if Richie is saying to us, "you've seen car chases and fist fights and people jumping off of things before."

And it's true. Action movies bore me mostly, because everything is repetitive. That is why the Bourne movies had such impact: they dressed the conventional in an unconventional manner, which itself became conventional. U.N.C.L.E. does one better: it turns away when things start heating up. the best example of this is a boat chase sequence, which Solo actively refuses to participate in. Thus, the entire thing is experienced in glimpses, as the audience watches Solo eat dinner instead. Likewise, towards the end, a military engagement is shown montage rather than detail, because the details don't matter. A bunch of explosions don't add to the substance of the film, which is made all the better by skipping the bits that slow the pace and getting on with what we want to see, which are the characters. It is an aggressive move in the modern film-making landscape, but true to the origins of the piece. The film is set in a time when Bond's encounter with the helicopter in From Russian with Love was pulse pounding, and when action movies were more commonly known as thrillers because action didn't happen, suspense did. I'm not calling U.N.C.L.E a thriller - if it has to be labeled, then action-comedy is it's truer form - but there is a bygone era where things didn't have to explode every ten minutes to keep the audience's attention. Perhaps that is Richie's most audacious notion here: that the audience will remain interested because they are, not because something shiny passed in front of them.

The final triumph of the movie that I will draw attention to is Daniel Pemberton's score, which matches Richie's direction and Joanna Johnston's costuming as being pitch-period perfect. The songs are retro and fit the bill expertly, but I was much more interested in the music. Namely, that there wasn't much of it. U.N.C.L.E is refreshingly largely silent. Scenes are allowed to play out with only the sounds of the scene to build the tension and the atmosphere. What music there is is terse and effective. And the majority of the songs are diegetic, which adds to the notion that these characters are there experiencing these events, rather than us watching them. Music sets tone and pace, and most movies overuse it, and all you need to realize that is a film that under uses it and notice the significant difference. This is such a film. It relies on it's subtleties to accentuate it's proclivities. It's pretty to look at and has a healthy sense of humour, and apparently for some that makes it worthless tripe. But gods dammit, entertainment is meant to be entertaining, and U.N.C.L.E is sure as hell that.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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