In a year where audiences have been spoilt for choice when it comes to high-quality action films, someone had to have the unenviable position of bringing up the rear.
While a new Guy Ritchie film is always something to take interest in, The Man From UNCLE actually lives up to the “style over substance” criticism that’s been leveled at Ritchie his whole career. Based on the ‘60s espionage TV show of the same name, the new UNCLE achieves the slick retro aesthetic it’s clearly going for, but is lacking the sense of fun inherent in the stye which it blatantly apes.
Henry Cavill plays debonair CIA spy Napoleon Solo, a former master thief and man-about-town currently serving off an amnesty deal with the American government. At the height of the Cold War, Solo is forced to team up with Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) as the result of an unusual partnership between the two rival governments. Their mission: find Dr. Teller (Christian Berkel), a former Nazi scientist who has invented a new way to enrich uranium, making it easier to develop nuclear weaponry. As part of the hunt, the two bring in Teller’s daughter Gabby (Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic from Berlin who may or may not be betraying them, because that’s how spy movies go.
At a cursory glance, this story seems simple enough to understand, but in execution the story grows increasingly dull and nonsensical by the minute. Plot points serve as little more than an excuse to jump from action sequence to heist sequence, many of which are good, but not good enough to make the audience forget that they have no idea why any of it is happening. A silly plot in a ‘60s spy homage would be acceptable, but a boring one is nearly unforgivable.
What little of the film that does work comes strictly from Hammer and Cavill, each man clearly having fun with the absurdity of their respective characters. While Cavill is adequately packed with Bond-esque sexually-menacing charm, it’s really Hammer who stands out. For a man normally devoid of screen presence, the gag of him playing an overly serious, frighteningly intense force of nature works very well, particularly when that intensity is generated toward something relatively unimportant.
One of the film’s better scenes involves the two men arguing over which clothes Vikander’s character should wear on the mission. As the two men bicker and reveal their wealth of knowledge into women’s fashion trends, it becomes very apparent that this would be better off as a My Two Dads situation, and the inevitable romantic subplot with Gabby becomes more of an annoyance than a plot device. On that note, it’s clear that Guy Ritchie isn’t even trying to be clever with his homoeroticism anymore. Attempting to recreate the “action-bro” love of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, but lacking the chemistry that RDJ and Jude Law had, the film relies on a series of barely-concealed innuendos, including a decidedly unnecessary exchange where the men decide on-screen who will be top and who will be bottom. (During a break-in, you perverts.)
Of course, if Napoleon and Illya are the two fathers, this leaves the issue that Gabby is the child, despite these people being all roughly the same age. But the script routinely infantilizes her, reducing what could have been an interesting character to a series of “Oh, you boys,” and seemingly random sexually-charged dialogue. Guy Ritchie’s never excelled at creating complex female characters but Gabby and her evil counterpart Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) feel particularly lazy, which isn’t helped by the fact that Vikander’s performance is flat, dull, and sporting a constantly changing accent. For further evidence, the closing credits feature a look into the files of the UNCLE team, including Illya, Napoleon, and their new leader Waverly (Hugh Grant). These three men’s files contain important bits of character background, including strengths and weaknesses and psychological profiles. (It would have been nice if these had actually popped up in the film itself, but hey, that’s what sequels are for, right?) Gabby’s profile is last, shortest, and basically boils down to “She fixes cars.”
But Guy Ritchie’s films are most notable for their style and panache, right?
Well, both of which are present here, but in a way that seems phoned-in, as though someone else was trying to make a movie imitating Ritchie’s style. Aside from the opening and closing sequences, most of the actual action bits of the movie aren’t given enough time to grow into something memorable. Apart from some cool editing and split-screen techniques, the energy that the film is clearly hoping to achieve is nowhere to be found. Worse is that the film pulls you in by introducing the characters with a fun chase sequence, then just downshifts from there. Compare this to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which opens with the now-famous airplane sequence and then just continues to build up.
This is the real misfortune of The Man From UNCLE: not only is it a film which could have and should have been better, it’s also a film that may have been passable if it had been released in a different year. But there have been at least five more interesting and better-written action films this year, and at least three of them have also involved spy organizations. While the film shows promise, if you have a choice between say, The Man From UNCLE or the woman from SPY, I have to tell you to go with the one that’s going to be more fun to watch.Liked This? Share It!