The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Guy Ritchie
We get a movie based on this show, and yet I STILL can’t get a Hogan’s Heroes reboot!? It looks the Hollywood remake machine is going all the way back to the Cold War with this re-imagining of a series that was made well before Rocky solved the Cold War by kicking Dolph Lundgren’s ass. I’ve never seen the show before, but a good old fashioned spy thriller in the vain of From Russia with Love would be a nice change of pace from the other stylish spy flicks we’ve been getting recently. Not only that, but having Guy Ritchie at the helm of something set in an era that’s known for its unique brand of style seems like a perfect pairing of director and film, so there’s plenty to look forward to here. Still, you can’t say that Guy Ritchie has been one to look at for great stories which is pretty evident by his PREVIOUS adaptations of a popular series that didn’t take long to go completely off the rails. Will this be a return to form for the venerable director, or is this just another weak outing from a guy who never learns from his mistakes? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins in early 1960’s Germany with American Super Spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) making his way to East Berlin. His mission is to get a local mechanic (Gaby Teller played by Alicia Vikander) to assist him in finding her father who was a former Nazi nuclear scientist and has recently gone missing. The mission is fairly simple. Convince Gaby to help the US and sneak her out of East Berlin. Things get complicated however when Soviet Super Spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is acutely aware of what’s going on and tries everything in his power to stop the duo from crossing the border into West Berlin. Fortunately for the good old Stars and Stripes, Solo succeeds in his mission leaving the not so good old Hammer and Sickle twisting in the wind. Except not really! For some reason, the Soviet government and the US government decide to work together to find Gaby’s father, so now Solo and Illya have to work together to stop whatever scheme he, or possibly his kidnappers, are planning. So wait, they couldn’t come to an agreement to work together until AFTER Solo and Illya tear their way through East Berlin? Wouldn’t that have complicated any ongoing negotiations? Oh well, at least we now have our premise. It’s a spy action-comedy with the tension between Solo and Illya working for opposing sides in the Cold War informing much of the comedic strife and genuine tension throughout the movie.
This film is ultimately a mixed bag with several elements working quite well throughout, but other elements nearly derailing the entire enterprise. I’d say that the flaws never succeed in ruining the movie, but they come pretty close a few times and they do ultimately hurt what could have been an excellent throwback to old school spy flicks. Its biggest problem is the script which just isn’t focused enough and we end up getting a movie that indulges on pointless asides while cutting the more significant moments short. An example of this would be the transition from the two spies finding out they’re working together to them going on their mission which is to find Gaby’s father who might have been taken by this one corporation in Italy so that he can make a bomb for them for… some reason. There’s really no set up for them before they head to Italy with the only interaction between our heroes and their respective handlers being the scene where they’re informed they will be working together. No scenes with this movie’s version of Q handing out weapons, and no real sense that they are actually working on behalf of their governments. They’re basically left to their own devices which I guess works for a spy story (to a certain extent), but usually there has to be some sort of setup from the organization to give the audience a sense of the bigger picture that they’re a part of. The US government (I think it’s the CIA) and the Soviet Government (It’s definitely the KGB) just come across as incompetent to let these two guys run wild when they prove time and time again that they can screw things up royally due to their own egos or personal issues.
That would have been okay though if we did get to the meat of the story right after that. A rushed transition from the opening action sequence to the main plot threat may be necessary to keep the film’s pacing up which you would want from something like this. The problem is that when we DO get to the primary mission, these two chuckle-heads just keeping dicking around for most of the second act while Gaby is just kind of hanging around the hotel. The sense of urgency is diminished here because of these random tertiary scenes don’t add anything of substance. Illya pretends to get mugged in one scene, presumably to protect his cover, but the scene is rendered moot because one of the running gags of the movie is that no one buys his cover (due to him pretending to be an architect, yet built like a brick shit house). Solo ends up banging the hotel receptionist at one point, but we never hear from her again after that so it’s just there to show how cool Henry Cavill is. Hell, there’s a fairly significant action scene in this part of the movie which is VERY cool, but the information they gain from that scene is hardly useful and once again becomes moot once we go into the third act.
Speaking of the third act, that’s actually where things pick up again. Once shit hits the fan for our spies (and Gaby sort of), the scenes cease to be pointless and rather build upon one another to make the finale so much more satisfying. A huge contributing factor to this is that they finally have that agency backing that was inexplicably ignored or forgotten by the film in the second act. Hugh Grant shows up as a British agent, and he helps Illya and Solo in their big raid on the enemy compound which makes for a very cool and stylish way to close out this film. Where was this focus and believable stakes when it was floundering for the last forty minutes!? The whole second act is where the film just devolves into unconnected action scenes and subpar spy gags that OCCASIONALLY hit, but don’t contribute to the whole. The movie just has a gaping hole that it gets lost in between two stronger sections, but I guess it’s better than a weak start or a terrible ending.
So the movie just kind of loses you in the middle, but manages to start strong and end strong. That’s certainly forgivable (if a bit disappointing) because of how much they do right in terms of its action and style which is what you’d expect from a Guy Ritchie film. He really seemed to have hit upon something that truly inspired him here and every detail they throw in to recreate the sixties is beautifully realized. From the physical set designs and costumes, to the way the limitations of the era are used to get the characters to think creatively. There are no cell phones, no hacking, and even the basic electronic equipment can be spotty. This means that much of the movie relies on their own skills and wits to win the day rather than the tools on hand which definitely gives it something to separate itself from similar over the top spy fare like Kingsmen: The Secret Service and Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation. These positive aspects are present throughout the entire film, so while the second act isn’t going anywhere, at least it looks good doing so.
The last thing I want to address is the characters, and this is once again a mixed bag. For the most part, Henry Cavill’s character (Solo) gets most of the attention and heroic moments, while Illya is almost used exclusively for laughs and Gaby is barely a presence. It’s really disappointing that Guy Ritchie still can’t seem to write female characters as anything other than sexy plot devices (*cough* Irene Adler *cough*), but that’s not as surprising as how badly Armie Hammer gets it throughout the film. He has a running gag in here where he’s almost always on the brink of having a rage induced breakdown, and always manages to fuck things up because of it. He’s more than capable of dealing with whatever mess he gets himself into, but his character just comes off like a really REALLY terrible spy. He doesn’t even get respect from anyone else in the movie which is highlighted when he has one of his rage attacks after being dissed by a bunch of gay (or maybe just flamboyant) Italian guys in the men’s room. Not only is this right up on the line of offensiveness (I say that because the movie doesn’t confirm that they are in fact gay) but the fact that they are talking mad shit to a guy, who I will remind has about fifty pounds of bulk muscle on his incredibly imposing frame, just comes off as a strangely mean attempt to remove as much shine from Illya as possible. I guess Guy Ritchie didn’t want to make the USSR look TOO good, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of this movie? I’ve never seen the original series, but my understanding is that this is about two people learning to work together despite their differences, and yet they make the American so much more heroic and unflappable while making the Russian guy capable, yet unpolished. I guess that was the risk they ran when making a remake out of something that was clearly a product of its time, but you didn’t have to scoop out what was supposed to be the heart of this movie (the budding bromance between these two spies) just because one side ended up being the winner in that conflict. Hell, Watchmen is just as dated but Zack Snyder STILL left in the original ending where the US and USSR become allies to fight against a new external threat. Illya doesn’t even get a chance at a noble ending and instead has to have Solo hand it to him on a silver platter. Other than that, I think Solo is very well portrayed and Henry Cavill is having a lot of fun with the role here. Hopefully this means that he’ll have a chance at a decent career unlike a lot of other actors who’ve donned the Superman tights. Also, while I’m still unclear WHY the villain wants a nuke in the first place, the actress playing that character (Elizabeth Debicki) does an excellent job with the role they’re given.
What this movie lacks in strong storytelling and characterization, it tries to make up for in style and action. For the most part it succeeds because the latter is so well realized, and the former is brought up a bit by strong moments at the beginning and end and decent dialogue for the not so interesting characters. It should have been better considering how obvious the mistakes were in this movie, but as it stands it’s good enough for a fun end of summer romp. This has pretty much been the definition of Guy Ritchie’s career for a while now, and it has served him well in that time. Still, if they plan to do a sequel I hope that they fix some of these mistakes and make something truly great. Oh who am I kidding? It’ll probably end up like the second Sherlock Holmes movie.
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