Review – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Luca Calvani, Christian Berkel, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Remakes and reboots are common place in Hollywood. Studios love them because they are largely safe. While an original idea is risky, a remake gives you instant name recognition and a pre-existing audience. At least that is the thinking. But Guy Ritchie’s latest film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is a remake of a television series that ran from 1964-1968, half a century ago, that carries zero cultural cache with the target demographic for this spy actioner, which begs the question: why?
As is to be expected, we go back to the beginning. This is an origin story, describing how U.N.C.L.E., the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, came about. We begin in East Berlin in 1963, where American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) has been sent on an extraction mission to transport beautiful, young auto-mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) across the Iron Curtain. Between Solo and safety is Ukranian KGB operative Illya Kuriyakin (Armie Hammer) who is also after Teller. An exhilarating car chase ensues, one only slightly undermined by the stodgy communist bloc Trabants they are driving. But these adversaries are to become allies with their next mission. Dr Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a German nuclear scientist who had previously worked for the Nazis and who happens to be Gaby’s father has developed a simplified process for enriching uranium which has made atomic bombs dangerously attainable. Teller and his research have fallen into the hands of an Italian crime ring with Nazi connections. So the CIA and the KGB have decided that is it in both of their best interests to ensure that Teller and his research are retrieved, which means Solo and Kuriyakin must put aside their differences and work together.
With The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie and his writing partner Lionel Wigram offer a reinvention rather than a straight remake of the 1960s television series. What they primarily retain from the original series are the character names – Solo and Kuriyakin – and the central conceit, the teaming up of a CIA agent and a KGB operative during the height of the Cold War (Thankfully, they have chosen to do away with the television series’ nemesis organisation, awkwardly known as THRUSH). This central premise – the odd couple pairing of two elite, lone-wolf agents from very different worlds – is a good one. While these two have to work together, they are not on the same side. They have to keep their eyes on the mission but also each other. There is a balancing of cooperation and competition, rivalry between these two alpha males. Whose methods are better? Whose gadgets are better? Both represent to the other everything they dislike about the other side, and this is reflected in their nicknames. Kuriyakin calls Solo “Cowboy.” Solo calls Kuriyakin “Red Peril.”
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.is a different type of spy film, not as muscular as the Daniel Craig Bond films, the Bourne series or the Mission Impossible franchise. In an era when most action films are trying to feel gritty and real, Guy Ritchie has gone in a different direction and produced a very family friendly, PG feeling spy caper. The film is conspicuous in its avoidance of impactful violence. That is not to say that a film like this needs to be violent, but you become aware of what it is choosing not to show you and at moments even feels like a film that has been edited for content by an airline.
Instead of muscular grittiness, Ritchie’s film opts for style. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gives you beautiful people wearing stunning costumes in picturesque Italian locations. The Sixties aesthetic is very important to the film. The gorgeous costumes designed by Joanna Johnston are as important as any character. Similarly, Daniel Pemberton’s Sixties inspired score, which is complemented with songs from the era, perfectly sets the scene. Guy Ritchie adds his own kinetic visual style to the film, making particular use of split screens during action sequences.
Unfortunately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. largely lacks the substance to support all of this style. While Ritchie and Wigram dial down the camp tone of the TV series (at least its latter seasons), they are still shooting for a humorous tone. The problem is no one seems to have told the characters, all of whom take themselves just a bit too seriously. Odd couple buddy movies are dependent on the dynamic between the co-stars, but these leads are entirely lacking in chemistry and charisma. As Napoleon Solo, Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill is going for suave but because he doesn’t quite crackle he just comes across as smug. Armie Hammer’s Kuriyakin is a Western caricature of the Soviet Union, a tightly wound and humourless superhuman who experiences flashes of blind rage whenever his or the Motherland’s honour is besmirched. Alicia Vikander, a very talented actress who was so good as the robot in Ex Machina, is not given anything of substance to do here. The brief bright spot comes in the form of Hugh Grant who steals every scene he appears in as British intelligence chief Waverly.
While great to look at and not unenjoyable, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. just isn’t as fun as it should be. For all its visual brightness, its lack of energy and chemistry means it just ends up feeling a bit dull.
Review by Duncan McLean
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