Release Date: August 14th, 2015
Dir. Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill (Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (Ilya Kuryakin), Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria Vinciguerra), Hugh Grant (Waverly), Luca Calvani (Alexander), Jared Harris (Sanders)
When I walked into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I literally knew only two things about it. 1. It was a spy movie. 2. It was based off an old TV show I’d never heard of. Sure, I’d heard from a few people around that it was coming out. I was aware of it, but there was no hype for this movie. There was no building excitement from anyone outside of the movie podcasts that I listen to. Even then, it was more matter of fact curiosity than actual excitement. So I really had no clue what I was going to get and no expectations. Walking out of there, I liked it, but I wasn’t whooping and hollering. There are certainly really great and entertaining things occurring in the movie, but there was something that was just a little off for me. My overall feeling ended up being I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love it. It’s a smart spy movie that plays with expectations while still remaining loyal to the genre.
Slight spoilers ahead
I’ve since gone back and looked up a few things about the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. tv show that aired in the mid to late sixties at the height of the Cold War. It is a show that pairs two highly skilled intelligence agents together on cases, one from the CIA and one of the KGB. The movie does the same. While I’m sure there were a number of references thrown in to the movie, I really caught none, obviously. I did however notice that this film served almost as the jump off point for a new potential movie series. This was the first pairing of our two protagonists Napoleon Solo (CIA) and Ilya Kuryakin (KGB) as they work together to keep nuclear secrets getting in the hands of the black market. In the middle is Gaby Teller, daughter of the man who is capable of manufacturing the nuclear secrets they hold.
My biggest problem with the film was the lack of character development. What we learn about this characters largely come from what we learn from other people. The characters never really have emotional beats or any real development. Solo is a womanizer and an art thief. He enjoys the finer things and prefers things to be suave and proper than anything else. Yet, we don’t learn anything else about him. He sure does like a good bottle of wine though. The same went for Illya who had an anger problem that could have been something effectively used in the plot. The problem is that it never was. It was a trigger hardly played off. The same went for Gaby. The introduction of her father should have allowed for us to learn more about her, but it just didn’t. Despite the lack of character development, Solo and Ilya really shined when they were together. Their banter worked extremely well. The chemistry and tension between the two worked, while you also felt like they were building this friendship that was built on their rivalry.
The filmography was possibly the best thing about this movie. Guy Ritchie as always knows how to compose an interesting shot. Time and time again you are treated to slick action, unique framing, and well executed transitions. It was so good that sometimes I just had to sit back in awe of how wonderful this film actually looked. It is truly beautiful and really felt like it inhabited its time.
The humor in this movie was rather hit or miss. Most of it evolved from witty plays with words during conversation or silent visual gags played in the background. The witty remarks were really enjoyable, but called for attention to be paid to what is being said as character subtly insulted each other. The visual gags were a bit more obvious but well done. The only problem was that they were used rather heavily in the same way even if the situations were different each time. The ridiculous reactions, often from from Solo after realization of what was going on behind him/them really worked. The delivery could have been poor, but Cavill’s deadpan smugness really worked with this.
Another issue I ended up having was the romance that seemed to awkwardly develop between Ilya and Gaby. It didn’t make much sense why Gaby warmed so quickly to Ilya. Nor did it make much sense that she adapted the entire situation very well, until you reach a later plot point. Ilya and Gaby didn’t have much time alone. In the time they did they were often in conflict. Few words were shared. No linger stares really occurred, yet somehow there seemed to be this budding relationship. In a spy film, this isn’t that uncommon, but it didn’t work here. They went from 0-60 in terms of feelings and we never got to see on screen why that happened. The result was that it felt like insta-love. If that had built up their characters more or made them take actions on their feelings for either the positive or negative of their goals it would have been more tolerable. The problem was that it never really did making the insta-love feel unearned.
Another thing that I loved about this movie was how it subverted the genres typical action beats turning them into humorous moments. There are a number of scenes in which the tensions should be high. Our characters are placed into a high stakes situation and they need to handle it. Ritchie then takes the presumption that the audience has that an action scene will follow and turns it on it’s head. Instead, he makes the scene humorous or deflates a character until they are weak. It was really interesting and I enjoyed those moments as it made what could have been a generic scene film unique. My particular favorite was a scene in which Solo and Ilya are trying to escape a location. I won’t give any spoilers, but it was hilarious. This was done multiple times in the film where expectations are subverted to great success.
Now, it probably seems the way that I’ve been talking about all these negatives that I really disliked the movie. That wasn’t the case. Like I mentioned earlier it was entertaining. The plot was serviceable and straight forward with minimal twists. While slightly confusing in the beginning it became crystal clear and knew how to play to laughs. It didn’t take itself too seriously which is a nice change from something like Bond, but it didn’t go so far as to become absolutely outlandish like say Kingsmen. Instead, The Man Man From U.N.C.L.E fell somewhere in the middle and did it comptentently. The biggest problem will likely be that these characters are from a different generation and we never get a great grasp on these characters leaving them feel a bit more like caricatures than people.
Guy Ritchie managed to make a a funny and entertaining spy movie. There aren’t really many heart pounding moments which are instead traded for humor. This movie knows how to entertain, but it lacks any real character depth a growth. The most character depth we get is some anger problems and an attachment to a watch. I really enjoyed it and if you are a fan of spy movies, I would check it out.