The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) / Action-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov
Caleo: David Beckham
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram

Review published August 15, 2015

If you're ever searching for an example of a director working overtime to make a film that might have otherwise been dull into something exciting, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should probably up at the top of the list of choices.  This is, without a doubt, a film that is sold wholly through its use of 'bells and whistles' elements, from the attractiveness of its stars, the garish period wardrobe, the sumptuous locales, the funky soul soundtrack, the sleek cinematography, the tight edits, the split-screen implementations, and its commitment to doing everything with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  Dig any deeper than the surface and there's not much to it, but, oh what style it has!

The "U.N.C.L.E." of the film's title stands for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and its a bit of a misnomer of a title, the meaning is something you don't find out until the beginning of the end credits, as the organization doesn't exist yet. For all intents and purposes, this film is an origin story of sorts on how U.N.C.L.E. comes to exist, which means, of course, that it is being made as a proposed launch of a new spy-comedy franchise.  But, because this is a film that is based on a wry James Bond-esque television property from the 1960s starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, a show that is obscure by most who didn't live during the era, but which has a colt following, there is still that need to retain the name recognition of the show, so the title remains.

Set in 1963, British actor Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Immortals) gets do adopt an American accent as ex-thief turned stylish CIA agent Napoleon Solo, whose latest mission involves helping a car mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) over the Berlin Wall from East Berlin to the free world.  Teller's father, a former abettor of the Nazis in World War II, is a rocket scientist who is being strong-armed by some baddies into developing a targeted nuclear weapon, and she is going to be instrumental in convincing him against this action, as well as to get the plans on the weapon's unique construction.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cold War, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, Stan Lee's Mighty 7) is a KGB Agent out to do the same for the Soviet Union, and though they start off as enemies, soon a short alliance is formed between the United States and the U.S.S.R. to have Solo and Kuryakin join forces to thwart these nefarious plans from coming to fruition and tipping the balance of world order into chaos.

It's a fun romp, and recommended for its kinetic energy and wit, but the potency of the style does often dwarf the lead actors, who are a bit too vanilla to command the screen as anything more than pawns for director and co-screenwriter Guy Ritchie (Revolver, Snatch) to move around as he sees fit for the sake of the action or comedy beats.  It's nice to see Cavill and Hammer cut somewhat loose playing characters they haven't attempted before, yet they're merely caricatures that strike the same notes over and again, keeping a deadpan, nonchalant demeanor while Ritchie sets up for laughs around their obliviousness to the absurdness of their situations.  Ritchie's not above dabbling with an ambiguously sexual subtext to their repartee, though never quite in a way that's obvious. The women are a little more interesting in the way they are handled, but equally used to achieve a certain look or comical tone more than for giving us someone to identify with.  Ritchie employs a good deal of misdirection to keep our attentions away from the notion that the movie is hollow underneath the ornateness of the on-screen eye candy and skillful technique, but he is a master of his craft, which does keep The Man from U.N.C.L.E. frothy but buoyant, as breezy to watch as it is vaporous to recall weeks later.

Purist fans of the TV show may bristle, but for all others, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a movie that succeeds or fails based on how important you think it is to score lots of "cool points" and wink-wink gags when assessing the worth of an action-comedy.  It doesn't have a great screenplay or ask much out of its actors save to give a certain look or effect a comical tone, something they do with great aplomb, but the chic look, cheeky tone, and snappy tempo of the film is electric, especially if you love the retro vibe of Oceans Eleven and Sixties' heist film revivals of its ilk (interestingly, Steven Soderbergh was originally attached but disagreed with the studio's requirements).  It's a dessert film, but one made with great skill and precision, so as long as you're not expecting anything more than an entertaining two-hour diversion, and you can deal with the oversaturated nature of Ritchie's stylistics, it should hit the spot like an ice-cold frosty treat in the middle of a blisteringly hot summer's day.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo