The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (dir. Guy Ritchie)

Posted: August 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, heretofore referred to as “Uncle” for ease of typing, is a light and breezy spy movie that looks, moves and feels like a 60s era piece of entertainment.  It never takes itself seriously, not much is at stake (despite a plot involving possible nuclear annihilation), the characters are likeable and charming, and everything feels rather weightless as you’re watching it.  As a result, it never rises above the level of “fun”.  This isn’t a “good” movie, it’s certainly not profound, and it is easily forgettable, but while you’re watching it the film will amuse and occasionally delight you.

I was perhaps a tad predisposed to liking certain aspects of the film.  In have been to Berlin and seen the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  I am a person who is highly interested in the old Soviet Union, and I identify myself politically as a Marxist Socialist.  Naturally, a film that takes place at the height of the Cold War, involves traveling to East Berlin, and features a likeable Soviet agent as one of the two protagonists (Armie Hammer) teaming up with an American (Henry Cavill) to fight fascists is going to tickle my fancy a little bit.  Hammer is, as a movie star, still wounded by the giant bomb that was “The Lone Ranger” (unseen by me), but he shows a deft humor in portraying a somewhat uptight KGB agent with anger issues.  The film makes mentions of Stalin’s crimes and the gulags (Hammer’s character’s father was sent to one for embezzling Communist Party funds), but it allows Hammer’s character, Illya Kuryakin, to be a likeable and capable guy, and not just a foreign bozo for the American to upstage.  Cavill, playing ex-black market art dealer-cum-CIA agent Napoleon Solo (the TV series the film is based on can be blamed for that ludicrous name), looks and sounds the part of an old Hollywood movie star, and has the charisma of a Cary Grant.  His chiseled features and the old-time Hollywood cadences of speaking dialogue really show that Cavill would have been right at home in a 60s Hollywood picture, and his presence in this film grounds it in the time frame in which it takes place.

The production values of this film go a long way to selling that this is the 1960s, from the fashions to set design to music choices.  Director Guy Ritchie even uses editing styles that give the entire film the feel of the 1960s filtered through a pseudo-Tarantino lens. While I miss the Guy Ritchie who made films like “Snatch” over a decade ago, the Ritchie who made this film is miles better than the one who made the lackluster “Sherlock Holmes” films.  It’s obvious from watching the film that Ritchie was aiming not so much to emulate the 60s, but to make the film look as if it were actually a PRODUCT of the 60s.  Some wonky CGI establishing shots of European cities aside, he largely succeeded in his goal.

As mentioned, the plot involves an American CIA agent teaming up with a Soviet KGB agent to stop Nazi sympathizers from attaining and detonating a nuclear device.  This hinges of both agents helping an East Berlin auto mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander, who was so good in this year’s “Ex Machina” and does a bang up job here too) reach her father (Christian Berkel), a scientist that Hitler had forced to work for him during WWII.  This leads to infiltrating the ranks of the fascists, who are mainly lead by Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of a Central American shipping magnate who is also a fascist.  “Uncle” is a bit more forward-thinking in the gender department than most spy films by having its main, intelligent villain being a woman.  Also, Gaby is a headstrong woman who is very capable herself. Compared to our two main male characters, who are occasionally buffoons, the women come off looking much better in the long run than the men.

The film isn’t quite parody of the “Austin Powers” or this year’s “Spy” variety, but the film has a breezy humor throughout and the drama never really takes hold.  That may be why, while I had fun during the film, I never really CARED all that much, and during a third act chase scene, despite it not being heavily CGI, I still found myself kind of bored and would have preferred more quippy dialogue.  I also would have preferred more politics and Soviet-related pot details, but that’s a complaint likely limited to myself and some history buffs.

“Uncle” isn’t going to be a film you remember, but it’s a fun film that works while you’re watching it.  It looks and sounds great, is well acted, the characters are likeable, and you’ll have a good time when you see it.  I just wish it had been more…well…just MORE.  The film at least serves to show that Cavill is a much better actor than “Man of Steel” was capable of showing us, Alicia Vikander is going to be an actress to watch as she now has two performances under her belt this year that were above and beyond what anyone was likely to expect from those characters, and that Guy Ritchie may be on the upswing in his career after a string of lackluster films. Good job, cowboy. B-

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