Movies · Reviews

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Review: Guy Ritchie is Fun Again

By  · Published on August 11th, 2015

Ever since the trailer dropped for this modern update of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., some skeptics have been asking, “Who is this movie for? Are the fans of this show even still alive?” Yes, many fans are still alive and well, but the answer to that question, regarding who this movie is for, is simple: it’s for people who like fun movies. That’s exactly what director Guy Ritchie’s modern and old school update of the 1960’s television show is: fun. Ritchie, after spending years on the Sherlock Holmes pictures, has directed his most unabashedly joyful and giddy movie since Snatch.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is about as smooth as a C.I.A. agent can get. He’s impeccably dressed, is cultured, and, when it comes to the job, he’s more than capable. The soldier-turned-thief-turned-super spy begins his mission in Germany. His job is to find and safely escort Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a brilliant scientist, out of Germany. Gaby’s father might be assisting some pesky Nazis, led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Dibecki), in getting their hands on a nuclear bomb – and it’s up to Gaby and Napoleon to find him before he finishes the job. Gaby’s extraction is almost interrupted by KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a hulk of a man with no shortage of anger and strength. Unfortunately for Napoleon and Illya, their superiors decide, out of a shared interest and goal, that they should work together to prevent the Nazis. The spies are at odds from the start, and for the most of the movie, it remains that way, which is a refreshing approach to a buddy picture.

Napoleon and Illya are hardly what anyone would call “friends.” Towards the end, they earn each other’s respect, but that’s about as far as their relationship goes. Ritchie has a good eye for casting, because like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the Sherlock Holmes pictures, Hammer and Cavill are a well-matched pair. The two characters are almost always criticizing each other and doubting each other’s methods, and the two actors are clearly having fun with each insult the characters throw at each other. Ritchie and Lionel Wigram’s script naturally lets Napoleon and Illya’s relationship unfold. They never try to force the two protagonists into an underserved, jokingly contrasexual relationship. The characters’ rapport is natural, funny, and, occasionally, has enough heart not to make The Man From U.N.C.L.E. a completely style-over-subtance affair.

What style the film has, though. This may very well be Ritchie’s most stylistically rich film to date. He builds such an energy with this heightened, colorful world. Of course it helps that he has three stars that all look incredibly appealing in some gorgeous costume designs, but Ritchie and his DP John Mathieson have created such distinct environments. It’s an inviting world you want to see more of. Ritchie has fun with these heightened settings, often allowing the camerawork to be a part of a joke. There’s one shot involving fire and torture that shouldn’t be spoiled, but it must be said, it’s a hilariously timed bit of comedy.

As for the action, it’s uniformly top-notch. Some viewers may be thrown off by some of the CG environments and action – as that’s not what they’re accustomed to – but Ritchie didn’t intent to make an entirely photo-realistic film. That’s not to say there’s not action done in-camera, because there’s plenty of practical action, like the third act car chase, but the film’s atmosphere is almost intentionally cartoonish. The action comes dangerously close to landing in the uncanny valley. Thankfully, that never happens, as Ritchie finds a sweet spot between real world and CG environments – making them all feel of a colorful, heightened piece.

The main attraction of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is its stars. Leading up to the film, Cavill and Hammer have been question marks. Will Henry Cavill have a career outside of playing Superman? Will Armier Hammer have a star career? The answer to both those questions, based on their performances, is a resounding yes. Say what you will about The Lone Ranger, but Hammer gave a committed and charming performance, and he does the same here – except his performance is serving a much better film this time around. It’s a very funny performance, and once we learn about Illya’s tragic past, it becomes a three-dimensional performance – where it’s easy to understand where all this broadly comedic anger is coming from. Cavill, from beginning to end, is just plain charming with all the well-written quips he’s given.

The great Hugh Grant also makes an appearance to deliver chunks of exposition, which the movie gets a little too caught up with in the second act. Ritchie was smart enough to enlist Grant, because he manages to make most of the exposition a part of the film’s charm. Grant’s casting is one of the many mindful choices Ritchie made with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. This is an incredibly confident, stylish popcorn movie, full of pleasures large and small.

The Upside: Hammer, Cavill, and Vikander are a charming trio; about as straightforward as a story can get; the score is dripping in cool; playful action; Elizabeth Debicki is a radiant villain; more adventures with these characters are welcomed; Hugh Grant helps liven up the dry spots.

The Downside: The second act isn’t as exciting as the rest of the film; the exposition is a bit much at times.

On The Side: Steven Soderbergh was once set to direct with George Clooney pegged to play Napoleon Solo.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.