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For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.


Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchie has spinning his take on the mood, energy and imagery of the period is infectious. He’s since moved on to his (intended as, but let’s see how the first one does) multi-part reinvention of the legend of King Arthur (Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur), which doesn’t bode well when descriptions of Arthur as a street kid are thrown about (it really needs to be more Excalibur than Clive Owen; this one sounds like a medieval Kingsman), but he’s surpassed my low expectations before. I’m a big fan of his two Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes (much more so than the self-glorifying Steven Moffat one that gets all the plaudits), but I wasn’t hopeful. And The Man from U.N.C.L.E. didn’t look up to much from the trailers, giving off the vibe of trying for a tone but failing to nail it. The finished film suggests more that it’s simply a difficult marketing challenge, and the tepid (at best) reception confirms it.


Spy movies may be doing well at the moment (very well, with Kingsman, Mission: Impossible 5 and SPECTRE all winners this year, the latter a sure thing), but trying to convince viewers to sign on to a big screen version of 50-year old TV show without any hook telling them why is a big ask. Mission: Impossible in 1996 had Cruise at his peak as a dangling carrot, not to mention a signature tune nearly as distinct and galvanising as Bond’s, and the attraction of now-get-out-of-that tension filled set pieces. That didn’t make it a sure thing, but it’s easy to see the pull. It was also set in the present day. It’s essential to do a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a period piece, but that comes with the paraphernalia of “serious” spy genre fare (as Bridge of Spies will be later this year).


U.N.C.L.E. might have sold viewers if it had taken the Sherlock Holmes route, of transferring a kinetic, modern sensibility in a ‘60s setting, but even Ritchie’s much-loved (and to be fair, he has honed them, and does them incredibly well, though I’m not sure how they’ll surface in King Arthur – probably via Merlin’s sleight of hand) “explanation montages” are elegant and smooth rather than fast and furious. While Ritchie fully embraces the period, one can’t help feel he’s doodling here; perhaps the third Holmes film didn’t get off the ground as quickly as he hoped. Certainly, that he ended up with the property is more than might have been expected for an adaptation that has taken more than 20 years to get to screen.


While Steven Soderbergh was with it for the longest time (the deal breaker being budget, but it can’t have helped that buddy Clooney decided he was too old and injured), Tarantino was interested way back (the same retro interest that saw him suggest a period Casino Royale). Also involved at various points where Matthew Vaughn (he really wants a Bond film, doesn’t he, almost as much as Christopher Nolan wants to remake On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - although Vaughn's once presumed parentage might have been a factor) and David Dobkin (dodged a bullet there, ditto with his modern day Arthur and Lancelot). 


Warner Bros will no doubt be questioning their choice of second or third choice leading men right now (or indeed greenlighting the thing in the first place) but it’s downright baffling that anyone thought Cruise was a good idea for the picture prior to Cavill entering the frame. Firstly, he’s no longer the draw he was, but mainly what kind of confusion/lack of differentiation didn’t everyone think would occur with him playing another cheesy grinning spy in another resuscitation of a ‘60s TV show? The only mystery is that he didn’t see the futility and was actually attached for a spell (it was Rogue Nation that finally led to him ditching it).


Like me, Ritchie knew the series from ‘70s/‘80s BBC repeats. His affection doesn’t really extend beyond a “Let’s try and capture the fun of it” (it was on a list of properties Warners presented for inspection, rather than something he pursued). But he does succeed in this ambition; tonally U.N.C.L.E. exudes lightweight ’60s sophistication, with only the occasional stumble into Ritchie’s penchant for laddishness (a fellatio gag in a gents toilet) and crude violence.


Being a pastiche of ‘60s spy movies, the prerequisite elements are assembled by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram (collaborator on Sherlock Holmes as well as producer on Ritchie and Harry Potter pictures); the Berlin Wall, bugging devices (to the point of absurdity), gadgets (Soviet ones are always better), crosses and double crosses, a villain's island lair, and of course, a nuclear bomb. Nuclear secrets are the MacGuffin around which the plot revolves, and it really is a MacGuffin. Ostensibly East meets West to track down (T.H.R.U.S.H.-less; Ritchie must have taken a lot of arm-twisting to ditch them) independent villains (they’re capitalists though, selling bombs to the highest bidder) a nuclear scientist who has developed a means of enriching Uranium more effectively than anyone else. With that goalpost loosely marked out, Ritchie and Wigram can pretty much go anywhere and do anything they like in the name of spy shenanigans, and the viewer will compliantly nod along for the ride. It very much is Bond in all but name in that sense. It’s not the destination but the journey that matters.


Unlike Bond though, U.N.C.L.E. is a Ritchie staple: the buddy movie. And it’s in this area Ritchie’s slightly at odds with his usually assured sensibilities. He’s generally pretty good with casting and chemistry, but he and Wigram have put the boot in before Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) can even strike up discord leading to bromance. With Solo they knock it out of the park; he’s smooth, suave, funny, unflappable, determinedly un-macho (he’s even granted the more earthy culinary skills of Harry Palmer). 


Essentially, this is a test run for Cavill as Bond (except he’s having more fun as Bond than anyone since Roger Moore, which is a no-no under the current dour remit) and he’s outstanding. Admittedly, my experience of his work is limited (Stardust, Immortals, Man of Steel) but none of those actually give him a chance to have fun. And he’s a natural, walking off with the picture with aplomb; if the picture were as wholly assured as Cavill is, it would be an instant classic.


The problems arise with Kuryakin, the more interesting of the duo on TV because he was somewhat remote and enigmatic. Here, Ilya’s an open book; a guy with a hot temper due to parental crises (the end credits even give him an Oedipus Complex, afflicted by a treasonous father and a loose mother), it’s a wonder he ever passed muster as a spy when he goes off the deep end at the slightest provocation. Kuryakin’s essentially the heavy to Solo’s sophisticate (though they both know their fashion; the scene where they vie over Gabby’s wardrobe is probably the one in which Ritchie most tips his hand as to his own sensibilities), and it seriously undermines him. We can’t take seriously his sub-Darkman scenes where you wouldn’t like Ilya when he’s angry; the music gets intense and his hand starts to tremor. The conceit flat-out doesn’t work, an attempt to distinguish Kuryakin from Solo when sticking to the unknowable guy would have been much more effective and in-keeping with the aimed-for tone.


Ilya’s tentative romance with Gabby Teller (Alicia Vicander) fizzles too, as Hammer and Vicander have zero chemistry (Vicander’s and Cavill’s however, is evident). Hammer isn’t outright bad, and has fun with his mouthful of marbles Russian accent, but he doesn’t look like his character as described and he doesn’t really mesh with his co-stars. Why a rigorous KGB agent decides to sport stubble for most of the picture is beyond me (it doesn’t even fit with his architect cover), but it further emphasises that Kuryakin is off; this really Solo’s show alone, and Ritchie and Wigram appear to have fitted out their Russian as an afterthought (possibly an echo of Cruise’s time as lead).


This appears to be further evidence, following The Lone Ranger, that Hammer
doesn’t have the Midas touch of his grandfather; he seems to be stuck with miscasting after miscasting when it comes to would-be star vehicles (perhaps his home is as a character actor; see The Social Network and J. Edgar). I’m not sure there needs to be a sense of camaraderie between Solo and Kuryakin (as I say, my memory is the latter tended towards diffidence), but there should be something between “Cowboy” and “Peril”. You end up engrossed in everything Solo does but little caring for Kuryakin’s place in the scheme of spy things.


Vicander’s the third lead, and by the end the third U.N.C.L.E. member (well fourth, if you include Waverly). She’s having a versatile year with this and Ex Machina, and she looks great in ‘60s fashions. Ritchie also serves her a plot twist that makes her more than just the accessory of her male co-stars (albeit, I wouldn’t go as far as saying she’s as well served as her counterparts in Fury Road and Rogue Nation).


Hugh Grant, picky with his projects these days and aware his romcom days are waning, is a treat as Waverly; different to Leo G Carrell, but bringing everything familiarly toff-ish about his persona bar the stutter to the table. His English superiority is very amusing, and it’s interesting to see him to take that de facto role away from Cavill as soon as he enters the scene proper. Elsewhere, Jared Harris (Moriarty from the second Holmes) chews on heavy-duty ‘50s spook delivery as Solo’s boss.


The villains are mixed. Luca Calvani is completely forgettable as Alexander Vincinguerra, but Elizabeth Debicki makes up for it as wife Victoria. Victoria’s really in charge and also looks fantastic in frocks. It shouldn’t be any surprise, as Debicki stole her every scene in The Great Gatsby. If there’s a problem here, it’s that Ritchie’s having so much fun with his milieu, the duo never take on a real sense of threat or purpose.


He saves this for Nazi war criminal and torturer Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) and tonally it feels as if Ritchie’s stepped over the line from frivolous froth into unpleasantness. Rudi indulges a Hitler show reel reminiscence before giving Solo the old electroshock treatment. Presumably Ritchie’s summoning Bond circa Goldfinger, and he tries to maintain an amusing touch throughout the sequence, but even when it comes to Solo and Kuryakin debating whether to turn Rudi in while he fries in the next room (the third time Ritchie has used a foreground/ background gag in the picture) it’s a bit jarring given the frivolity that has gone before. It’s a reminder, along with angry Ilya, that Ritchie’s never that far away of his favoured rawer, blokey persona, however he dresses it up.


This is an effective sequence in and of itself, however, and Ritchie masterminds several perfectly-judged set pieces elsewhere that show him at his keenest, entirely delivering the relaxed, offhand thrills he’s aiming for. Best of them is the opening, where Napoleon rescues Gabby from East Berlin with Ilya hot on their heels. It’s an extended sequence, riding on Solo’s easy self-confidence, one that seems to end after Ilya’s car crash but then kick-starts once more with renewed energy. I particularly liked the conceit of Gabby’s car wedging between two buildings, only for Solo to direct her to take a left (out of her window and through one of the neighbouring apartment blocks). Ritchie’s pacing of set pieces is acute and delightful (it’s hard to pick between him and Vaughn on that score, but I’d probably give Ritchie the nod for the most polish).


Later, following an attempt to rob a safe (it’s empty), Ilya and Napoleon flee in a speed boat, only for the latter to end up in a truck cab munching a sandwich and drinking port while Kuryakin is pursued in the background in every decreasing circles. It sums up the tone of the piece beautifully, and even concludes with a neat bit of problem solving as Napoleon opts to rescue his not-yet-buddy by landing on the pursuing vessel and using the headlights of the now submerged truck to locate his lifeless body.


The aforementioned explanation montages are good fun too, in the main inessential (there’s nothing there we couldn’t work out for ourselves, from Gabby’s apparent betrayal then discovery of her real boss, to pickpocketing Waverly and Victoria, to the finale with the rocket) but a neat stylistic flourish that again adds to the pictures sense of knowing exactly what it wants to be. That’s also the case with assault on the Vincinguerras’ island fortress (a tasty bit of split screen work that dispenses with all the boring fireworks so we can get on to the next scene). Budget-led or not, the choice to have the villain outwitted in the finale rather than perish in a big set piece is welcome, and off the back of Rogue Nation doing likewise may show at least a few filmmakers out there coming to the realise that more isn’t always more (Marvel could take note).


The prior fisticuffs are less satisfying (where Ilya gets angry and sticks the knife in), since it again slips into Ritchie overcooked grit (maybe not the full RocknRolla, but don’t give him ideas), but the preceding cross-country chase features some nice ideas about using geography to advance the narrative (Solo gives up on the deep water pursuit and moves on to a shallow stretch to make up ground, while Ilya, Steve McQueen-like on a motorbike, takes it all in from a distance).


There are other welcome signs of a Ritchie able to stand back and take it all in from a distance. Slow motion is out, and in is a willingness to linger on a shot; the slow pullback of Gabby in bed is self-consciously arty, but you’d never have seen it in an early Ritchie picture. The yellow writing, the bane of a cheap (TV) movie of the ‘60s and ‘70s is employed with glee, and becomes a badge of pride. Meanwhile, Daniel Pemberton’s evocative score is a period-friendly delight, adding enormously to the sense of time and place. If we’re comparing Ritchie and Vaughn, there’s nothing between them when it comes to musical choices. Both have a near sublime understanding of what a picture needs to work; how often do you get a really great Hans Zimmer score (Sherlock Holmes)?


John Mathieson previously photographed the ‘60s for Vaughn with X-Men: First Class and he ensures everything here shines with Euro swank and tastefulness. Ritchie has perhaps surprisingly skirted the line where Man from U.N.C.L.E. becomes camp, as one would expect it to be exactly the kind of fare indulged as pure kitsch wink-winkery (think Modesty Blaise, Our Man Flint, or even The President’s Analyst). Or it might have been made as a Starsky and Hutch-esque comedy vehicle, still the case with many a TV reboot where the studio is at loss what to do with something they feel might, in some way, make them some money (CHiPs will be one). More often than not, this attitude turns out to be a waste of time and expense (look at the number of horror remakes in the last few years).


Against the odds, though, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has justified its existence, even the box office response looks to be no more appreciable than another Warners ‘60s spy TV adaptation (the disastrous 1998 Ralph Fiennes The Avengers). The best comparison is probably the mid-Connery Bonds, self-aware but not actually mocking or overblown. There are maybe a few too many longueurs around the midpoint, and Hammer is miscast and Ilya mischaracterised, but Ritchie’s picture turns out to be one of the better entries in 2015’s summer. Lightweight is okay sometimes, certainly when it’s delivered with this much panache.


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