The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Man, sometimes it feels hard to be inspired to write about anything unless I don’t like it.  Like (gasp!) it’s actually easier to be snarky and nit-pick a movie’s faults, than to expound on what makes it great.  And if there’s a negative side to this whole blogging thing, that might be it:  I can be way more adept at fault-finding than I actually want to be, while my ability to positively describe something may have atrophied a bit.

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For example, back in 2015, I went out and saw The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s stylish cold-war era spy thriller (and remake of the popular 1960’s TV series), and I quite liked it.  I wouldn’t call it “great”, but it was solid entertainment, and I got a big kick out of it.  And yet, back on this site, there was no post about it–there was just no inspiration to talk about it.  But when I saw Furious 7 on the plane, I was full of stuff to say, because of how stupid it was.  Entertaining, of course, but still stupid.

Every so often since then, I’ve found myself drawn to go back to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but I never got around to it until just recently, when it all the stars aligned during these semi-lockdown / movie plentiful times, and I introduced it to my family.  And it was a hit!

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It wasn’t more of a hit with audiences, though.  This is too bad because it really did have a lot going for it:  a decent plot, some sparkling dialogue, well delineated characters, some really funny situations, exciting action set pieces, and a good cast of international actors.  Of course, any adventure that brings the Americans and the Russians together to save the world in the height of the cold war is bound to be a bit outlandish, but Guy Ritchie’s snazzy filmmaking is up to the task of keeping things stylish and fun and still somehow believable throughout the story.  There’s plenty of visual flourish, tongue-in-cheek humor and outrageous story beats, but Richie is able to keep things clear and under control, and even retrained where needed.

Maybe for movie audiences it was too restrained, as in a world of lots of spy and caper films, it just didn’t distinguish itself.  Like I say, it’s a shame because for my two cents, it was better then a lot of others.  It pushes things a bits, but never descended to viciousness of The Kingsmen: The Secret Service.  It avoided the dour seriousness of recent James Bond, including Spectre.  It had a plot that held together better than Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  And it was miles more intelligent than Minions.

(You might wonder why I pull out those films for comparison, but they all were spy / caper / espionage films, even Minions, that all came out around the same time).

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The story is an origin story of sorts for U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and  Enforcement), a concept I’m mostly unfamiliar with, but I can tell that it works better than a lot of other big-screen “remakes” that attempt to do a similar thing.  The whole idea of this spy agency made up of operatives from all over the world is well set up by the plot and by the sparks that fly when the characters are all forced together.  When the premise of the old series is finally announced in the closing minutes of the film, it feels like the story has legitimately earned it.

The cast is good as well.  The kids really liked Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, the part originated by David McCallum in the 1960’s TV.  He’s got a great screen presence, and really feels like a guy who is truly dangerous (as opposed to a guy who is just written that way).  He makes a strong foil for the more obvious leading man played by Henry Cavill, and somehow makes Cavill seem short.  At the same time, Hammer gives Kuryakin a softness and sensitivity that actually makes him more likable than his co-star.

Cavill, meanwhile, is playing Napoleon Solo, who was originally played by Robert Vaughn on TV.  He delivers all his dialogue with an oddly affected tone of voice, but is also a lot of fun to watch, bringing a charming and laid-back suaveness to the part.

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The movie’s female lead is played by Alicia Vikander, who I only know from the remake of Tomb Raider, but who I realize is more acclaimed than that.  Here she plays Gaby, an East German auto mechanic who gets wrapped up in a scheme that threatens the stability of the world so badly that the two major superpowers are willing to put aside their differences for long enough to work together.

Actually, the movie itself is sort of like the vision for UNCLE, with people from all over the world.  Cavill is British, playing an American.  Hammer is American, playing a Russian.  Vikander is Swedish, playing a German.  Rounding it out is Hugh Grant, who is British, playing his own nationality in the small part of Alexander Waverly, the future boss of U.N.C.L.E.  Waverly just seems like a solid and pleasant sort of fellow who doesn’t have any of the awkwardness or ickyness that I feel are often so tied in with Grant’s characters.

I would have enjoyed seeing more adventures with this cast and creative team, but alas it wasn’t to be.  But at least we got what we got.  There are a couple of short skip-worthy scenes if you don’t want the sexual content (I don’t), but on the whole it’s pretty clean and decent family viewing–well worth a look if you’re looking for a bit of light-hearted diversion.

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