The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the perfect date movie, in that I want to take this movie out on a date.
The beautiful and charming movie, based on the 1960s television series, thrusts Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a master thief blackmailed into service for the CIA, and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a KGB madman, together to stop a group of former Nazis from pulling together the material for an atomic bomb in the height of the Cold War.
If nothing else, and a movie really needs nothing else, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. boasts fantastic characters. The lead duo clash over nationalities, personalities and operating styles, but with passive aggression layered on top of the regular aggression. Many of their most heated arguments are over each other’s attire. The dynamic between these characters and the female leads, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) are hilarious and obnoxious to the point of being endearing.
Cavill and Hammer have had uninspiring careers to this point. They’ve each been handed an action franchise (Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger) and each movie failed to live up to expectations. This movie felt uncomfortably like they were being pushed on audiences, that someone was really, really invested in Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer — superstars! being a thing, but they finally show how they got these parts here. Hammer is witty, edgy and shows off his timing. Cavill is so sarcastic he almost satirizes his own character in the movie establishing that character.
Director/co-writer Guy Ritchie’s calling card is his films’ irreverence and fast pace, and those are on full display here, but he also slips in a lot of fun shots, particularly with mirrors — some obvious, some subtle, some subtle but then obvious. His higher concept for this movie was to mash together modern action tropes with ’60s visual styles and technology, a fairly simple artistic job, and he gets it done. This movie will appeal directly to fans of the older James Bond movies, but with the action of turn-of-the-century spy flicks.
This is one of those “style over substance” movies, and I’m a little tired of hearing that term. Style is the substance of movies, and I’m not sure what people mean when they say that a movie has more of one than the other. Do they think substance is story points? That’s not true. Does “alcoholic goes stir-crazy, tries to kill family” really cover The Shining? Is “idealist loses way” a fair, complete summary of Citizen Kane? Story is a basic element that has to be there on some level — looking at you, Fantastic Four — but it’s not why you remember a movie, or even what you remember about a movie. There could be any number of movies about a Soviet and an American spy thrust together, but this one has its own flavor and it’s really memorable because of that.
There are a couple of points that are kind of weird. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t do that thing where foreign characters speak in accents when they should be speaking their own language, which is nice, but it leads to a lot of subtitles. That’s OK, but Ritchie plays games with them that I’m not sure I like or understand the point of. There are a lot of times where the subtitles will be absent, I guess because the dialogue doesn’t really matter in the scene, but in some cases all the dialogue in the scene is in non-English, leaving entire scenes as gibberish to most American viewers. There’s one scene where they’re talking in a foreign language in a car and you can’t hear them talking, but you get the subtitles, and then the open the window and you can hear them talking again, and that’s a really neat idea, but again, why?
There are also a couple of points at which the movie goes into the multi-frame thing from that Ang Lee Hulk movie that everybody hated, and it’s impossible to follow.
In the end it’s pretty obvious Warner Bros. wants a sequel and this is just meant to be an episode in a long series, but why not? This movie was a blast, and it didn’t do that Amazing Spider-Man 2 thing where every frame is meant to set something else up. The setup was just one scene at the end that actually resolved the film’s final conflict. As long as the concepts stay fresh — maybe a different director or visual style each time? — it’ll be great to see this cast back together again and again.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will go into wide release Aug. 14.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Communism: because you have to. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.