The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had the potential to be a lot of things. Crime noir, a period piece, even a solidly cheesy remake of the television show the film was based on. Instead, U.N.C.L.E. reached for all and lost itself in the fold. An early Bond throwback, and spy thriller, this Guy Ritchie directed and written piece had the potential to be a camp induced fun and vastly interesting film that would close out your summer. Instead Ritchie chose to disallow his actors to actually do their job, blasting music over their important moments and choosing sweeping shots of the stunts and car chases in order to further his points. This is important because explosion! This is intense because everything is moving fast! But then again, should we expect anything less from Ritchie at this point? It’s a film that’s almost a lot of things, but never quite any of them.
The plot is based around special agent Solo (Henry Cavill), an American who was enlisted by the government because of his unique skills picked up during his time as a soldier in World War II. Solo, being a cunning individual, chose to exploit the spoils of war, making money off of stolen art recovered from the Nazi regime. Of course, he’s caught and the American government, aware of the talent they have in their clutches, allows Solo to work his eventual prison sentence out on the streets as a special agent. Solo is good at his job, and he knows it. As part of his latest mission, he’s to cross the young and lovely Gaby (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) into West Berlin so the government may use her to find her Nazi father. While on his mission, Solo is accosted by German special agent Illya (Armie Hammer) who is basically a fucking superhero. Solo and Illya come to a head with Solo getting out on top during a cunning escape to the other side. The two quickly meet again, but this time have to deal with being partners. Stuff happens, and plots thicken, all with the special Ritchie flair.
First and foremost, let’s note the fact that Hammer and Cavill should have switched roles. It almost felt like Ritchie used Cavill’s Superman status to up his credit as the dutifully suave American. What was strange was his choice of American accent. Rather than talk like a real live person, Cavill stuck to the cadence normally reserved for William Shatner. Hammer did an alright German accent, seemingly using a character tactic to get through the tougher words (i.e., speaking through clenched teeth on more than one occasion). That’s not to say they didn’t successfully play their parts. On the contrary, they were actually able to communicate the whimsy involved with the original show, something Ritchie didn’t seem interested in. However, it would have benefited both of them as actors to portray parts they were maybe not normally used to.
Another “almost” Ritchie blew it with was the utilization of Gaby. Throughout the movie she ebbed and flowed as less of a damsel in distress, and more of a bad bitch. However, she never quite reaches her peak, instead reverting back to the damsel role in order to serve the storyline. He was (almost) successful in his use of a female antagonist in the form of Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby). Victoria is the leader of an international criminal organization originally headed up by her husband’s father, and could realistically take on any male crime boss tenfold. What’s ultimately disappointing about her is the lack of a broader story. She’s basically a static character that just happens to be the main villain.
That lacking is actually felt throughout the movie. Though it seems to end three or four times over, (rewrites?) not much unfolds. They consistently get from point A to point B without needing to work for it. The wacky hijinks they get into during missions are more of a nudge and a nod to the original genre than something that adds to the overall plot. Had Ritchie not taken everything so seriously, this could have worked out. It would have been refreshing to see a thriller closer to the days of old, with the spies relying on imagined sci-fi tech and actual tools from the time in order keep the leg up on their enemies. As a collective hive mind, we should all remind directors and writers that it’s ok to be goofy sometimes. For every gritty reboot that fails on screen, there’s always an opposing light-hearted comedy. Why would an audience member want to sit through a teeth grinding thriller that goes nowhere when they can actually enjoy their movie going experience?
They obviously intend to turn U.N.C.L.E. into a franchise, and one can only hope that if they do indeed keep these characters alive that they’ll give them something to do other than look fly as hell in period clothing. There’s a lot of talent in this film, but it obviously didn’t apply to Ritchie. What once worked for his style and intention no longer translates on screen, at least not in this case. Overall, it’s an enjoyable film that drops a few one liners and focuses on set pieces as a means for distraction from the lack of story. Watch it because you’ve already made your rounds along the new releases, or because it’s full of really pretty people who have perfected smoldering stares. Just don’t try to analyze it much, because you’ll be vastly disappointed.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is in theaters now.