I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.
Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.
But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.
The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.
And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.
However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.
Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.
I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.
In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).
I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.
Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.
In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.
I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.
3.5 stars out of 5