Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant | Director: Guy Ritchie
For a summer packed to the gills with a number of big budget, CG-happy studio tentpoles that offer flashes of excitement that leave as soon as we exit the theater, there have been a few films which rely on the timeless combination of solid camera work and quality storytelling. Leave it to Britain to save our sorry colonial butts from boredom with Guy Ritchie’s latest, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, the pair form an unlikely duo during the height of the Cold War to stop an enemy powerful enough to compel both the United States and Soviet Union to join forces.
Cavill plays it cool for the majority of his screen time as Napoleon Solo, a man who’s impressed by very little and extremely adept in overcoming any obstacle during a mission. It’s understandable for audiences to immediately compare Solo to Bond, but to do so would be a grave injustice to Cavill’s performance. Yes, Napoleon is a galavanting playboy with a plethora of skills. What makes Solo especially contrasting to other spy figures in film is his subtle disdain for the tradecraft itself. Napoleon was indentured into service by the CIA for past crimes, however in the years he’s worked for them, Solo has refined his talents to the point that he unmatched in the field.
Countering Solo’s sophistication and stealthiness is the intense and towering Illya Kuryakin. Unlike Napoleon, Illya is a patriot through and through, willing to sacrifice body and soul for Mother Russia (and to restore the honor of his family name, thanks to corrupt officials). Hammer’s portrayal of this silent hunk offers more than the physicality he exhibits from the very beginning; his rage is constantly tempered for the sake of all in the room. Kuryakin has more heart that he cares to admit and draws upon it as a strength as the film progresses. Though hesitant to completely drop his guard, Illya’s self-discovery draws him as the most relatable character among his compatriots.
What was particularly refreshing was U.N.C.L.E.’s strong core of supporting characters, led by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina). Vikander’s Gaby – a German mechanic with an arresting attitude that Solo must liberate behind the Wall – is the true wild card that pushes the agents to their limits. Raised in East Germany, Gaby has no time for pleasantries or Solo’s tired flirtations; nor can she stand Illya’s frosty disposition. She truly shakes (and on occassion, slaps) things up and adds a jolt of energy and intrigue to U.N.C.L.E.
The villains – played by Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani and Slyvester Groth, respectively – offer a similar balanced of craftiness and humor, yet are bereft of any characterization. We learn little about them through the dossiers given to Napoleon and Illya but their purpose is never fully explained. They appear to have an ideology (or at least it gives them a connection) yet it doesn’t gel with their endgame. Thankfully this minor muddling of the antagonists’ purpose does little to detract from the beat of the film.
If one were to seek out a hitch in U.N.C.L.E., it’s lack of high action could cost them maintaining the attention of the mainstream audience. That isn’t to claim the film doesn’t have more than its share of gunplay, explosions and chase scenes. However U.N.C.L.E. does its very best to be a sophisticated spy thriller rather than an immense action spectacle like its competitor Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. There is no questioning of Christopher McQuarrie’s talent as a director and screenwriter, yet what signature he resides in his work is diminished thanks to its massive star power, complex fight choreography within opulent locations and extreme stunt work (OK, we get it. Tom was strapped to the ass end of an Airbus, #neverforget)
U.N.C.L.E. on the other hand is covered with Guy Ritchie’s fingerprints. All the smash cuts, cross-cutting and split screens are there, complete with a gentle yet lively tempo that culminates in a worthwhile resolution. A director cannot do everything alone and credit must be given to cinematographer John Mathieson, composer Daniel Pemberton, set decorator Elli Griff and costume designer Joanna Johnston for effectively completing the immersion into the 1960s.
True, the storyline is not unlike the multitude of spy films that have been burned into our retinas for the last 50+ years. The fact that it treads familiar waters and still presents a differentness is a testament to Ritchie’s capabilities in weaving peculiar characters with dissimilar personalities and tremendous flaws in ridiculous scenarios. One particular example during U.N.C.L.E.’s second act has Napoleon and Illya still going through their growing pains as a team. While one goes through the run-around with a bevy of henchmen, the other kicks back and snacks on a salami sandwich with some chianti. Like his crime capers of old, Ritchie was able to recapture the charm and zaniness typical with his bumbling characters and refines it in one svelte, stylish package.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. arrives in theatres August 14.