Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E

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During the 1960s, a roguish American agent is forced to team up with a perpetually cranky KGB operative to take down a criminal family with Nazi ties.

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Guy Ritchie, 2015

Former criminal Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, who is British) is now working off his debt to society as an agent for the CIA. He’s sent to East Germany on a mission: find mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, who is Swedish) and get her out of the country in exchange for information on her former Nazi father, Udo. However, a force of nature has been sent to stop him: monolith Russian operative Illya Kuryaken (Armie Hammer, who is American). Solo is most put out when he’s pursued by Illya. He’s even less happy when he’s told the two of them will be teaming up for the rest of the mission. Gaby and Illya go undercover as a couple in order to ferret out her father, who has been seen colluding with a wealthy Italian family. The cold, brutal Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki, who is Australian) runs the family’s company with an iron fist. The two agents try to overcome their animosity to hunt down clues as to Udo Teller’s whereabouts in their own styles, but they’ll soon find that there are bigger threats to the mission than each other. An international game of espionage is underfoot as everyone’s government tries to get its hands on the same information.

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Let me start by saying I LIKE The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I’ve fallen in love with the characters, and for the most part I like the film’s aesthetic. However, no amount of sexual tension between preternaturally attractive lead characters can detract from the fact that the plot is woeful. I’ve no doubt that seeing Mission Impossible and UNCLE back to back detracted from my experience of this film, as the spy plots got mixed up in my head. Still, upon inspection, UNCLE is full of so many twists that it turns around and eats itself. The plot seems to only serve in getting characters from point A to point B. It’s as if Guy Ritchie thought of some fun scenes and characters he liked and stitched them together with the thinnest thread imaginable. I still didn’t know what was happening by the time the strangely-paced climax rolled around. The exposition was doled out in such a befuddling way, too, in non-English dialogue with subtitles AND newspaper articles on-screen at the same fraction of a moment. Frenetic confusion seemed to be what Ritchie wanted from a lot of this film. The action sequences are split-screened into oblivion, and they move past so fast that it’s hard to get your bearings. Also, who is this movie for? I know it’s the year of the spy movie, but a Guy Ritchie update of a 1960s TV show is an odd film to market at any time. Its brightly-coloured 60s-throwback aesthetic is lovely, but not exactly current. Fans of the show are probably in an older crowd than this film is looking for, and younger audiences will be confused by its plot.

Oddly, this action spy flick is at its best in quiet character moments. Elizabeth Debicki’s Victoria is viciously awesome, to the point where I frequently wanted her to join the good guys just because I enjoyed her so damn much. She wasn’t in it nearly enough. Henry Cavill is handsome and fun as the roguish Napoleon Solo, and he masters the accent, even if it does seem to be taking a lot of his concentration. Rising star Alicia Vikander is a firecracker as the tiny but tenacious Gaby Teller (although, again, there is a “women are inherently untrustworthy” undertone to her character that is unsettling). And, with the exception of a creepy possessive streak, Illya Kuryaken is one of the best characters in anything this year. He’s this six-foot-five broken ball of anger management issues and puppy dog eyes. Armie Hammer really nails Illya’s mix of vulnerability and invulnerability, and his chemistry with both his co-stars is off the charts. They work so nicely together that it’s hardly surprising the film ends with a setup for a sequel. However, given the fact that the film hasn’t made back its budget, a sequel seems unlikely. In spite of this film’s failings, I’m disappointed by that; a sequel might iron out this film’s bugs and use its characters better. Unfortunately, it seems like UNCLE was best left to the small screen (oh my God, a TV show of these guys would be so great). It’s a shame, because there was potential here, but it had nowhere to go.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E on IMDb

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