From the Vault #22: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen arrives in cinemas, is from August 18th, 2015…

From an impossibly cool, jazzy song over the Cold War scene setting opening credits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sets its stall out right from the very beginning as two things: a classy, retro stylish spy romp and very much a Guy Ritchie film.

It’s taken a *long* time to bring Sam Rolfe’s cult 60’s TV series, a slightly forgotten phenomenon of its time which capitalised on the James Bond obsession of the age (which of course never quite went away), to fruition – for years it was in the hands of multiple writers and directors. Quentin Tarantino almost made it in the mid-90’s but opted (perhaps wisely) for Jackie Brown instead, while Steven Soderbergh perhaps came the closest with George Clooney headlining, but let it go with concerns he couldn’t make it work with the budget offered.

In hindsight, Ritchie is probably the best fit for the stylistics in play here, a director always with one eye on style over substance with another eye on how to fuse a set piece with a river of cheeky, knowing comedy. What he succeeds in doing here is updating a property most modern audiences won’t be familiar with into an equally modern sensibility, while never losing touch with the 60’s retro beats and character interplay between leading West meets East characters Napoleon Solo, gentleman thief turned super spy, and Ilya Kuryakin, strong humourless Russian bear with anger problems.

It may be as deep as a puddle, but splashing around hasn’t been this enjoyable in a while.

Keeping the picture set at the height of the Cold War, in 1963 indeed, was a wise move by Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram; rarely does detente politik get in the way of the breezy narrative but the backdrop allows the traditional U.N.C.L.E concept to be established.

Henry Cavill’s Solo is a bit of a dashing roué, a cad in a Savile Row suit who also happens to be almost a cliched version of 007; Cavill has never been more at home than playing Solo but it proves he should never be a modern Bond himself, he’s just too steeped in the Roger Moore-style of performance to make it work. His Western agent pitted first against then alongside his Soviet opposite Kuryakin remains a historically enjoyable concept, and allows for a genuinely fun dynamic between Cavill and Armie Hammer, who arguably steals the film with a delightfully deadpan turn, all towering glances and controlled fury, constantly being goaded into one upmanship by Solo.

It may be the typical ‘laddish’ comedy that forms Ritchie’s stock in trade, but it makes plenty of sense here; Solo & Ilya come to blows more than once in some fun, tricky sequences which almost always segue into gags without ever falling into pastiche, and that’s where Ritchie nails the balance. What so easily could have been silly with its period stylistics becomes endearing and knowing; Ritchie and his characters are almost always tipping a wink to the audience, while he & Wigram pepper the script with some wonderfully risqué gags that feel a step on from 60’s Bond one-liners.

Influences of course don’t stretch solely to the early 007 pictures (though they’re Ritchie’s self confessed primary go to) – the director owes a debt to The Ipcress File in places, Our Man Flint in others, and wears it all happily on his sleeve. Like all of Ritchie’s output it’s not a subtle picture in the least, but you’re in the wrong place if you’re looking for that. This is his paean to the spy caper of old, with a graceful pair of classy women at its centre, from Alicia Vikander’s slight and playful mechanic Gaby to Elizabeth Debicki’s Contessa Vinciguerra, an aquiline gazelle of a bitchy villainess, all cold British poise and cutting remarks – she’s a joy. You even have the grouchy American spy boss in Jared Harris, sadly only briefly on screen but chewing what scenery he does get, as does Hugh Grant who plays… well Hugh Grant really as the eponymous ‘man from U.N.C.L.E’ who ultimately weaves our two leads together.

You come to realise Ritchie’s picture is an origin story, or a prequel to the TV show perhaps, showing how Solo & Kuryakin become the team united beyond borders to face threats around the superpower standoffs; in this case it’s old Nazis who escaped trial, working with rich dilettantes to get hold of a nuclear warhead. Best not to worry about the plot though as Ritchie & Wigram don’t for the majority of the running time, only kicking narrative gears in when necessary – they’re having too much fun putting together period set pieces (the best being a stylised, framed screen amphibious beach landing) & having their leads spar. There’s a good argument they spend too *much* time on these dalliances and not enough on story, but it’s a minor quibble.

Ultimately the message to receive is that The Man from U.N.C.L.E is a very very hard film to dislike. A moment Cavill laps up sums it up, actually – Ilya is desperately being chased around a boatyard in a speedboat, guns and explosives flying, while Solo casually watches from a van listening to a romantic Italian song while quaffing wine and a luxury sandwich. It’s a protracted sequence but it elicits plenty of laughs and typifies what effectively constitutes a cinematic lark for Guy Ritchie.

Some might suggest he ought to grow up and stop making films about charming boys with toys saving the world but not me. There’s definitely a place for pictures such as this which delight in simply being entertaining, very much aware of how heightened and daft they are, filled with wit and style and grace. The big surprise is just how good Cavill & Hammer are, especially together. They’ve instantly delivered a spy team up which reject the modern day mistrust and darkness of the espionage world and get back to an age where heroes were heroes and the world was a simpler stage to save.

The *men* from U.N.C.L.E deserve to live another day.

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