The Man from UNCLE (2015)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris and Hugh Grant
Running Time: 116 min
DVD Release: November 17, 2015
Check Point Charlie in 1963 and an American heads from west to east to talk to Gaby Schmidt about her father, Udo Teller, who was ‘Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist’. Apparently, he came to work for the US nuclear program, but disappeared two years ago. Now that he’s shown up again in Rome, working for (or being forced to work for) a couple of Nazi sympathisers, the Vinciguerras, the CIA have naturally become very concerned. As a period piece, this was always going to be about a nuclear bomb, which is ‘end of the world stuff’, and they clearly need Gaby’s help.
This is a Guy Ritchie movie, so the stylish car chase that follows is hardly surprising. It’s shot beautifully and parts of it play out very much like a dance. There’s good music, good camerawork and good driving for whoever’s doubling for the young lady. Everything is promising so far.
The American is Napoleon Solo, a former army sergeant and former art thief, now a successful agent. The CIA felt that he, once he was eventually caught, would be wasted in prison, so they put him to work instead. Chasing him like a Terminator is a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin, who appears to be equally good, losing the chase only when he’s dropped into a minefield in no man’s land. Well, no, he’s still on the chase even after we think it simply can’t continue. It’s also very nicely done.
At this point I was impressed with the movie but not sold on the fact that it’s supposed to be The Man from UNCLE. Henry Cavill, who I haven’t seen play Superman and don’t remember from Stardust, is appropriately calm as Solo and he’s reasonably suave too but he doesn’t quite have the presence or the wry sense of humour we’re used to from Robert Vaughn. He feels less like an agent and more like an actor playing an agent. At 6’5”, Armie Hammer was well cast at the Lone Ranger but he’s too big, too unemotional and too wooden to play Kuryakin. He does, however, try for the sense of humour that Solo struggles with, and achieves it a little more often.
For the first half of the film, I was much more sold on the script than the stars, even when it throws them together as unlikely partners, teaming up to infiltrate the Vinciguerras’ shipping firm where Gaby’s uncle Rudi also works. Kuryakin plays her Russian architect fiancé and Solo an antiquities dealer (read: high class thief). Solo’s too sassy and obnoxious, Kuryakin’s too robotic and boring. It takes scenes like a wrestling match between Gaby and Illya to break some of the ice and let us believe that these guys might actually be able to work together.
What’s really surprising is that three short words is all it takes Hugh Grant to nail Alexander Waverly. We don’t even see him this early, except from the back, but I honestly thought I was listening to Leo G Carroll. He even gets another brief moment a while before he actually joins the story and that fraction of a second was enough to suggest that he looks like him too. Once he appears as a character, the cracks show but Grant’s work is in a whole higher league to Cavill’s and Hammer’s.
There’s a lot of good on show here. Ritchie’s visual eye is still strong: the vintage cars racing at the Vinciguerra’s party are gorgeous, the set decoration is excellent throughout and there’s a lot less gimmickry on show than is usual for him. When it does appear, such as a couple of wild split screen sessions, it’s appropriate and well done. The music is consistently enjoyable and I didn’t even recognise most of it, which is always a good thing in my book.
However, there’s a lot that’s bad too. Ritchie’s visual eye may be solid but nothing coalesces here; it’s just random cinematic beauty without context. One knife kill, for example, is shot with close ups of the participant’s faces, then the camera leaps above them to watch one fall along with a whirl of raindrops. It’s gorgeous but has precisely no connection to the scenes before or after or at any other point in the movie and this is far from the only example.
Cavill and Hammer continue to struggle. Cavill does get a good scene now and then, such as a confident demonstration of his thieving credentials to Victoria Vinciguerra, which reminds of Cary Grant even more than Robert Vaughn. Hammer has more trouble finding his feet, but he’s hindered by some really odd character decisions on the part of the scriptwriters. While they do play up the characters over the action and intrigue, they do so mostly through bickering and that doesn’t endear either of them to us, especially with Kuryakin ready for childish fits so often. With each of them unlikeable and the pair dysfunctional, I found myself rooting for the bad guys, even if they were Nazi sympathisers. That isn’t good.
And worst of all, the promising script becomes a mess of clichés that fails to distinguish itself above the plethora of cold war spy movies rolling around my brain. What’s strangest of all is that it weakens both Solo and Kuryakin, an odd approach indeed to take on a reboot of The Man from UNCLE, which phrases itself very deliberately in the end as an origin story. Neither agent really contributes much to the grand scheme of things. Solo’s grand achievement is saving his partner’s life in a half-hearted manner and Kuryakin’s is that opening chase scene before we even really begin. Given that the big picture is about saving the world from a Nazi-owned nuclear weapon, those aren’t particularly great achievements.
If I knew everything that happens in this picture and was asked to choose which agent to hire for my new organisation called UNCLE, I’d hire Gaby Schmidt, however horrendous her sunglasses. ~~ Hal C F Astell