I love spy fiction. James Bond is my particular favorite, but I really enjoy pretty much any kind of spy story. I can read or watch a more realistic John le Carre stuff right after some zany camp-fest like In Like Flint. There’s just something so exciting about spies. They combine the crime-solving nature of Hardboiled Noir with the morally bankrupt lead characters, and the high stakes of espionage. I love it. I’m also a huge fan of Guy Ritchie as a director, so when I heard that he was making an adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., that would be a big, colorful sixties spy flick, I got excited. My wife and I went to check the movie out last night, and I thought it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t perfect, there were some serious shortcomings in the plot, but overall I thought it was a fun movie.
I’ve enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes movies that Guy Ritchie has made, but I’ve been wanting him to get back to the crazy crime movies that he started out with, like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, and while this movie wasn’t one of those, it was certainly closer than the Holmes movies. It balanced his crazy visual style, his twisted sense of humor, and great dialogue. Now, I don’t know much about the Man From U.N.C.L.E. show. I’ve never seen any episodes, or any of the movies they made with the characters, so I was coming in pretty blind, and I also don’t know how good of an adaptation it was. But I liked it. The movies was really carried by it’s three leads, all of whom were amazing in this movie. Henry Cavill, who I only really knew from the terrible Man of Steel, was a blast as Napoleon Solo, an America spy who blackmailed into working for the CIA after he was caught being an international art-thief. He was a suave, light-fingered cat-burglar type character who was constantly smarmy and yet charming. Armie Hammer, who I think is a pretty great actor who has had terrible luck in getting stuck in real pieces of crap, was fun as Illya Kuryakin, a Russian KGB agent with a dark past who was an incredibly efficient and competent spy, who could also turn into an insane rage-monster at the drop of a hat. Then we had the amazing Alicia Vikander, who between this role and her breakout role in Ex Machina is really shaping up to be a serious up and comer, was a lot of fun as the East German mechanic Gaby Teller, who is used by the two agents to find her nuclear physicist father before he’s forced to create an atomic bomb.
The plot of the movie was pretty simple. The KGB and CIA are temporarily working together because a rogue fascists are planning on forcing Gaby’s father to help them create nuclear weapons to destroy both superpowers. I like that the Russians and Americans don’t want any other country gaining power and standing in the Cold War. So the two agents are stuck working together, and they split up to try and find the fascists from their two leads. Napoleon would try and seduce the heiress to an Italian shipping company, Victoria Vinciguerra who they believe is working with her husband to aid the fascists, and Illya will pose as Gaby’s fiance in order to meet up with her Uncle Rudy in the hopes that he knows where her father is being held. The rest of the movie is full of action set-pieces and twists and turns as the two agents get closer and closer to the truth. After a pretty half-baked twist that Gaby is willing to sell the agents out, we learn that she’s a triple-agent, and is actually working for the British, lead by Hugh Grant, and the three end up leading an assault on the Vinciguerra’s personal island. Alexander Vinciguerra is killed by Illya, and Victoria is straight up blown to pieces as they fire a missile to her boat where she kept the nuclear bomb. The villains are defeated and the two agents are told to kill each other by their superiors and take Gaby’s father’s research for themselves, but in the end friendship wins, and they decide to just burn the research and be pals. At that point Hugh Grant walks up and tells the three of them that they’re now an international team called U.N.C.L.E. and they have a new mission.
It wasn’t a particularly inspired plot, but the movie was saved by the cinematography and direction, and the cast. Guy Ritchie’s frenetic style really worked well for this type of movie. It was full of crazy stunts that blended some practical and CGI effects well, and some really inventive camera tricks, like the the safe-cracking scene. I also really loved the way that the movie would split into two or three panels, showing various characters sneaking around doing things, and they would eventually all meet back up and the panels would slowly fade away to become one shot again. The music rocked, Daniel Pemberton really made a great soundtrack that combined crazy sixties spy music with great old Italian music that you would hear from Spaghetti Westerns. And the acting was a lot of fun. You really got the friendship between the three characters as the movie went on thanks to the actors. Napoleon and Illya constantly snipe at each other, trying to prove that their country is better, all while insulting each other’s clothing. Gaby was a great character who didn’t take any of their shit. I think one of the big problems with this movie was that the villains were pretty lackluster. All we new about Alexander Vinciguerra was that he had a mustache and was creepy. Victoria was a little more fun, especially when she drugged Napoleon near the end and was being super over-acty and strange, but she didn’t go far enough to be some crazy supervillain, which I think is what the movie needed.
The last thing I want to talk about this movie is that it’s the second film this year, after Kingsmen, to be a crazy, campy spy movie. I think it’s interesting that even though the current Daniel Craig Bond movies are super popular and dark, people are also making these crazy spy movies that feel like homages to the silly Roger Moore period of Bond. It feels like people are maybe missing the fun and camp of movies like Live and Let Die and since the modern Bond movies are so serious apparently people are making their own silly Bond movies without Bond. I know characters like Bond ebb and flow throughout time in regards to the tone of the film, and we’re currently in a long period of serious realism, so I feel like we’re getting ready for a silly period. Just like Batman, we’ve been in a period of gritty Bond, and people are getting a little fatigued with it and are craving the zaniness of Roger Moore, just like there’s been a resurgence of Adam West Batman in culture. It was a fun movie, not one of Ritchie’s best, but I had a good time during it. I don’t know if they’ll make more adventures of Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, and Gaby Teller, but if they do, I’ll be there to check it out.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, was directed by Guy Ritchie, and was released by Warner Brothers.
Categories: Reel Talk