The thick air of August is announcing the end of the summer, as will the slowing number of blockbusters that will make their way to our local theaters. Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on a television series remembered strictly by people over the age of fifty, sounds like the kind of uncertain hit that could benefit from removing itself from the peak of the summer movie season. It’s hard to figure out why exactly Warner Bros. thinks an overly stylish spy movie set in the sixties and based on forgotten material could be a big hit. Then again, Warner Bros. has historically been the most adventurous of the major Hollywood studios, and deserves a “thank you” for bringing us movies as distinctive as Mad Max: Fury Road and Where the Wild Things Are, and now The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
But before we get wrapped up in praise (which the movie deserves), one must point out thatThe Man from U.N.C.L.E. suffers from considerable limitations that were not present (at least not to the same extent) in the movies I mentioned above. The biggest of these limitations is the disposable nature of its plot, and the weak characterization of its main players. The movie’s main focus is the unlikely team-up of debonaire American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and practically super-human Soviet spy Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who must work with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German scientist who might be involved in a plot to build and sell illegal nuclear weapons.
It’s typical spy fare done in an honestly unremarkable way. One would have to be joking to suggest the plot is anything more than an excuse for Ritchie to indulge in some of the most lush and stylish images of the year. This is, at its core, a movie about three incredibly handsome people wearing gorgeous sixties fashion and parading all around the most beautiful Italian landscapes. And I have nothing against such a movie, especially when the main trio is played by an endlessly charismatic trio of actors: Hammer is having fun despite being stuck with a bad Russian accent and Vikander is one of the most talented (and beautiful) young actresses working today, but the stand-out of the movie is Cavill, who goes all-in with the suave womanizing nature of his character and breaks my heart by letting me know what he could’ve done with a less dour version of Superman.
It only makes sense that the movie is set in the sixties, because the insanely charismatic work of the main triumvirate -which is only helped by Elizabeth Debicki’s villainous turn as an Italian socialite and business woman- brings us back to an older time when movies were built around the magnetic personality of its stars. But stylish performances are only the beginning of Ritchie’s aesthetic interests which culminate in the movie looking like the most beautiful fashion commercial you have ever seen, paired up with the breakneck pacing, crazy camera angles, and jumpy chronology that tend to accompany the director’s work.
For all of his flair, Ritchie has never been a great action director, and the action sequences in Man from U.N.C.L.E. are no exception. Only in this case, Ritchie seems to have recognized his limitations. There are surprisingly little action sequences in the movie, which consistently opts for the less action-packed narrative option. This is emblematic of one of the movie’s best moments, when an aquatic action sequence is only glimpsed through a character that is sitting down removed from the action. And whenever we do get a more straight-forward action sequence, Ritchie is more focused in stylistic touches such as zooms and cross-cutting, which would be poisonous if it weren’t for Daniel Pemberton’s supreme score, which does wonders to unify the sequences.
“Style over substance” seems to be quite literally Ritchie’s conceit for this movie, and that’s not a bad thing. For all of its narrative shortcomings, the movie is full of interesting bits and clever visuals. For example, Ritchie does a pretty good use of using the background of a scene as a visual punchline in two of the movie’s best moments. The movie’s script might be too weak, and Ritchie’s vision too unfocused, but this is still bold direction, and makes for something much more interesting that we usually get from our blockbusters. If you like pretty people, pretty places, pretty clothes, and lots of style, you will probably like this movie too.
Grade: 7 out of 10