Saturday 3 February 2018

Movie Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

A lighthearted yet effective spy thriller, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is zippy, action-packed, and playfully funny.

It's the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. The CIA's suave agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts mechanic Gabriella "Gaby" Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin under the nose of the KGB's Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). But Solo and Kuryakin are then forced by their bosses to work together on a dangerous mission to track down Gaby's father, nuclear scientist Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), who has disappeared.

The superpowers suspect that wealthy industrialists and Nazi sympathizers Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debecki) have abducted Teller and are forcing him to develop a technique to mass manufacture nuclear bombs. Solo, Kuryakin and Gaby travel to Rome where Gaby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for the Vinciguerras. The spies have to infiltrate the network of evildoers, find Teller and guard against each other, while Gaby has her own agenda.

An attempted rebirth for the 1960s television series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the big screen return of U.N.C.L.E. combines action, humour and a good dose of personal rivalry. Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, the film stays true to the spirit of the original series. The story does not take itself too seriously, Solo and Kuyakin are both really good at what they do but also never quite friends, and the overall vibe of the sixties among the jet set is irresistible.

Ritchie conjures up several brilliantly kinetic set-pieces, always laced with a mean streak of humour. The frantic yet elegant opening escape from Berlin sets the stage and introduces Solo's ingenuity and coolness under pressure as well as Kuryakin's uncompromising persistence. Later a motorboat chase is elevated to sublime character-driven artistry, Kuryakin increasingly desperate on the water, Solo in a truck listening to romantic music while munching a sandwich, the two men apart but about to become professionally inseparable. An electric chair "glitch" is also a masterful display of background humour.

If one thing limits U.N.C.L.E., it's a lack of overall originality. The television series was always riffing on the James Bond tune, and the film, while undoubtedly polished to a modern shine, is obviously playing with a very old deck. From the foreign settings to the seduction of exotic women to the McGuffin of a disk at the heart of the chase, all the elements are overly familiar. Ritchie does his best to infuse style, including busy editing to play with micro level scene sequencing, but little that is new can be wrung out of the sophisticated spy sub-genre.

The performances are both slick and predictable, Cavill perhaps pitching for future consideration as Bond, while Vikander has the most fun with Gaby, the one character holding more cards that she initially lets on. Hugh Grant gets a small role as a master spy handler.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may lack substantive innovation, but the film anyway has fun revisiting past glories.

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