Review: Classic Guy Ritchie Cool Makes 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' a Win
by Jeremy Kirk
August 14, 2015
There's a whole, separate article to be written about the dissection of the classic, spy film we're seeing in 2015. Never mind the fact that, come November, we'll take our 24th trip to the land of James Bond. With movies like Kingsman and Spy already killing it this year, there seems to be plenty of room in the dangerous world of espionage to jab at its side a bit. Then in comes The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie's take on the TV series from the '60s and a film that, despite all working against it, ends up a pretty entertaining bit of light-hearted action/adventure, a breezy way to send off a rather bleak Summer of dark offerings.
As with the original series, which ran from 1964 to 1968 on NBC, the film is about a two-man team who have come together during the early '60s, Cold War years to take on a mysterious organization that threatens the entire world. Those men: Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, played in the film by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. Unlike the series, the bulk of the film revolves around these two individually, Solo as a British spy and Kuryakin as his KGB counterpart. What begins as a mutual chase for one another quickly shifts to period-set buddy action/comedy like only the man who gave us the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movies can deliver.
There's been a lot of backlash on Ritchie over the course of his career, most of which probably stemmed from his years married to Madonna and getting Swept Away made. Not that any of it is unjustified, but, more often than not, Ritchie has been a go-to source for some damn cool cinema. His Lock, Stock et al crime dramedies always delivered. Always. Say what you will about his Sherlock Holmes films, too. They're never as breathtakingly brilliant as the current BBC series with Cumberbatch and Freeman, but they deliver hearty blasts of entertainment and some exquisitely-executed action sequences.
With The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie takes a step back from all that fast-cut editing and speed-ramping. It's a huge step back from the speed-ramping, actually. Instead, Ritchie utilizes subtlety in both storytelling and scene direction like never seen before in the filmmaker's career. Maybe that's not counting Swept Away, but who knew what he was trying to say with that movie.
He's picked up a maturity in his filmmaking technique, but that doesn't mean Ritchie leaves the cool out of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Quite the contrary. Setting the story during the height of the Cold War makes for some pretty hefty world-building, and Ritchie, naturally, delivers. It's a suave world of metal guns and rotary phones, the very beginning of the age of the international spy, and Ritchie fills his world with intriguing gadgets and immaculate costumes.
Filling those costumes doesn't seem like much of a challenge given the onslaught of classically handsome men in 2015's cinema. Thanks, by the way, "Mad Men." Stars Cavill and Hammer are two such leading men who could charm an icicle with looks alone they're so damn handsome. It doesn't really matter if they have any actual charisma, right. Snark aside, these two men may sell you on their looks initially, but they soon clench your attention with their genuine sophistication and pristine senses of humor. Individually, they're good if you can get around the thickness of their accents. When they come together, though, the charismatic fireworks light up the screen. Their dual antics and sense of timing off one another not only makes you a believer in their adventure, they make you want to see more adventures starring these two.
Mention must also be made of the amazing, supporting cast bouncing their own senses of humor off the pair of charming co-leads. Leading this team is Alicia Vikander, who rivals everyone else in the film in terms of screen attention. As she did in Ex Machina earlier this year, Vikander demands you keep your eyes on her even when she's visually in the background. She WILL make you laugh. Hugh Grant and Jared Harris also make notable appearances as well as relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who gives such an deliciously venomous performance you just know she'll be cast in a James Bond movie before too long.
With slaphappy attitude and smart execution, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. serves as an example of the very best that can come from a potentially bad idea. Under the direction of a less experienced filmmaker or one who is less of a visionary, the film could have easily slipped into Austin Powers-level ridiculousness. Anyone remember Starsky & Hutch? As it is, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also serves as proof that Guy Ritchie is still a filmmaker worth paying attention to if you're in the mood for smart, cool wit dressed in snappy suits. With Kingsman and Spy, that makes 3-3 as far as well-made, spy send-ups in 2015 are concerned. The ball is in your court, Bond.