Monday, August 17, 2015

Movie review: "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     In the day when most spy movies have been reinvented for today's audience, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. goes back to the stomping grounds of all subterfuge and misdirection: the Cold War. While the movie (based on the 1964 show) does have some charm and fun chase scenes, it also can't step out of the shadow of more well-known franchises like Mission: Impossible and of course, James Bond.
     The year is 1963, and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) have their first mission together: recover a missing German scientist who can arm nuclear warheads and do it more quickly than normal. Their lead is the scientist's brother, who works for an Italian shipping company run by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). With the aid of the scientist's daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the duo plan to get close to both Vinciguerra and the scientist's brother in order to find the scientist and stop him from arming a bomb.
     Only one problem: Solo and Kuryakin hate each other. Like more than ice and fire hate each other.
     But as one might accurately guess, they do learn to work together (or at the very least, don't try to kill each other). Which is good, because the bickering rivalry between the two is probably the movie's biggest strength. From the opening chase scene that quickly becomes a battle of wits between the two to both of them bugging each other's hotel rooms, Solo and Kuryakin's rather hilarious relationship remains the heart of the movie and is helped by the chemistry between Cavill and Hammer.
From left to right: Hammer, Vikander, Cavill and Grant.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     For that matter, both Cavill and Hammer embody their characters' personalities very well; Cavill slides
into the Bond-like Solo's skin with relative ease and Hammer remains a taut wire as he conveys Kuryakin's struggle to control his borderline-psychotic rage. Other characters don't receive quite the same treatment. While Vikander gives Teller both intelligence and toughness and is just plain fun to have on the screen, Debicki's Viniciguerra isn't all that interesting villain, even with Debicki's fine femme fatale performance. Hugh Grant shows up every now and then as a British guy named Waverly (fans of the show will recognize that name...) to deliver a snarky comment or several and, like Vikander, is also good fun.
Debicki's Viniciguerra.
And no, I don't know where she wants to put that thing.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     As a throwback to the 60's, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. includes more than a few chases from the dastardly forces of evil. And they work pretty well; the camerawork is quick and vigorous enough to make the scenes very satisfying. The rest of the script is a mixed bag; the first third isn't particularly interesting and was so boring that I had to look up a plot summary just to remember what happened. But by the second third, the action begins to pick up and stay that way for the rest of the movie (despite one very unnecessary and dark moment...which is quickly broken up by an equally black comedic moment). Camera shots range from the standard medium shot to bird's-eye and helicopter shots, giving the movie energy and speed. To Ritchie's credit, he also plays with the frame quite a bit, leaving some details out of sight for the viewer and letting them figure out what happens on their own.
     And that's probably U.N.C.L.E.'s biggest weakness: even without showing some things and keeping details hidden, some viewers will be able to see plot twists coming a mile away (or further, if they're really good). Even as the movie celebrates 60's spy films, it also doesn't really shake off this feeling of "We've seen this before already." It doesn't kill the movie at all, only prevents it from standing out more.
     In short, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is nowhere near as good as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig's James Bond. But at least it ain't Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan.

Final rating: 7 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Guy Ritchie. Screenplay: Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Grant.