EXPECTATIONS: An over-stylized and annoyingly modernized action film that bears little to no resemblance to the source material.
REVIEW: Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker that I used to admire in terms of his great sense of humour in his early work but ever since he worked on the Sherlock Holmes films, he tends to over-stylize his films to the point of annoyance. Particularly in the sequel to Sherlock Holmes, where he tends to overuse slow-motion and flashbacks to compensate for clear and concise storytelling. So when I was preparing to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E, I was nervous. Aside from the female leads, the male leads hadn’t really impressed me with their prior performances, particularly Henry Cavill. At least Armie Hammer was surprisingly noteworthy in J.Edgar. So imagine my surprise at how much I enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E but also imagine my disappointment at how much more it could’ve been.
Set during the brink of the Cold War, a mysterious crime organization, led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is hellbent on using nuclear weapons to disrupt relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to put aside their differences to work together and stop the crime organization of their evil ways. Their one lead into their mission is the daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) of a missing German scientist, who happens to be the one weaponizing for the evildoers, so it is imperative that they find him to prevent a global catastrophe.
If this plot sounds typical to you, unfortunately, it is exactly as it reads out. And this is the major problem with this movie. Very little effort is made to the plot and it bores at times, which is not a good sign for an action film. And even more so is when Guy Ritchie employs flashbacks, especially when they play out just mere minutes after the event happens. It can be amusing as it actually delivers a punchline, but most of the time, it’s repetitive and it can be seen as an insult the audience. Also adding to the fire is the tone shifts. They can be very abrupt at times and can make the audience question whether the film is meant to be a fun romp or is it meant to be serious. Addressing these major flaws, it is just so frustrating to say that it delivers on all of its other fronts, from the acting, the throwback style, the look and especially the soundtrack.
First off, the actors. As I stated earlier, none of the male leads impressed me before but in The Man From U.N.C.L.E, both of them surprised me. Henry Cavill is pure charisma as Napoleon Solo and he fits the character like a glove. From his womanizing ways to his controlled mood during the action and his excellent passive-aggressive chemistry between Armie Hammer, he’s a hell of a lot of fun. So much so, I can definitely see him as a contender for James Bond. As for Armie Hammer, he took a bit to adjust to, with an acceptable Russian accent, but he becomes more human throughout the movie, especially when he’s alongside Alicia Vikander. He’s like a bear of a man; cuddly and aggressive yet easy to warm up to. But it’s the chemistry between the two leads that pay off with some of the best moments in the film, like in a scene where they argue about what Vikander’s character should wear. Alicia Vikander is lighthearted and strong as Gaby and also has great chemistry with the two leads. It is very nice to witness her play a lighter role after all of her emotionally draining (in the case of Ex Machina, physically) roles. Elizabeth Debicki, who was a delight in The Great Gatsby, gives life to her archetypal villain (that would usually be portrayed by a man) and her scenes with Cavill are a delight. The rest of the supporting cast are fine, if not impressive, except for Sylvester Groth, who was pretty creepy in his scene with Cavill on how he reveals his own backstory.
Another surprise in the film is how Ritchie tones down his frenetic style to a suitable amount that actually adds to the film. The directorial choices like split-screens, subversiveness of the spy genre (like Elizabeth Debicki as the villain) and even the soundtrack all add to the retro-feel, even with some modern touches. All the action scenes are amiably low-key but they have enough style to stand out from the norm and some scenes even divert from the action with great effect. There’s a scene when Cavill is patiently waiting in a truck while Hammer is being attacked in a boat chase. The song coming from the truck radio is beyond cool and and really exemplifies the bond between the two characters. Another great use of music is during a torture scene involving Cavill and it balances between cool and haunting very well. The music recalls Steven Sodebergh at times, which is ironic considering that he was considering to direct this film.
As much as I can say about the positives of the film, it just pains me to say that this film could’ve been a lot more. The sum of its parts do not add up to what it could’ve been and what hurts more is that the film was a bit of a box office flop, so a sequel is very unlikely. I enjoyed the characters and their adventures and I wanted to see a sequel that could improve on the original’s flaws, but alas.
Very charismatic leads (and a fun villain)
Guy Ritchie’s direction is thankfully restrained
The soundtrack is a fantastic listen
Great throwback feel and modern touches compliment each other
Problematic storytelling (i.e many flashbacks)
Abrupt tone shifts
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriters: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, based on the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.