I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The last Guy Ritchie movie I watched was the first SHERLOCK HOLMES. When it ended I realized first that I wasn’t sure what the mystery was that Sherlock Holmes had solved, and then that I was having a reaction from accidentally combining medication and alcohol. But some people told me they saw it undrugged and didn’t know what the mystery was either. At any rate, I had long since given up on Ritchie since the initial excitement of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, which I have not revisited.

That’s why I took much too long getting to THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., a fun, charming, stylish summer blockbuster Cold War spy thriller that represents Ritchie at the very top of his game.

Henry Cavill (HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD) adds cocky charisma to the out-of-time square-jawed handsomeness of his Superman to play Napoleon Solo, roguish international art thief turned know-it-all American secret agent. He’s in East Berlin to get Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, JASON BOURNE), daughter of a Nazi (pronounced “GNAT-see”) scientist turned U.S. collaborator who some rich assholes are trying to force to build a nuclear bomb for surviving Nazis. But Napoleon and Gaby find themselves pursued by KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, THE SOCIAL NETWORK). There’s a sneaky car chase, a shootout and a zipline conflict and later (after a stall-clearing public restroom brawl) both agents are disappointed to be reintroduced to each other by their bosses, who explain that the CIA and KGB are working together on this one. They’re partners now.

Gaby bristles at having to pretend Ilya is her fiance, while Ilya and Napoleon continually bicker and try to one up each other with spycraft, technology, and attempting to bug each other. Ilya has trouble keeping his pride in check (for example when he has to pretend to be helpless against muggers) or not taking it personally when his fake fiance’s shitty uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth, THE READER, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) disapproves of their fictional relationship, but he seems to effortlessly come out on top whenever his rival tries to show off (like when Napoleon arrogantly narrates his dismantling of a safe, only to then set off an alarm).

Napoleon is so suave, with the witty quips and speeches and using his powers of seduction as part of his mission, that you both get a kick out of him and understand why he drives Ilya crazy. Ilya is more uptight and moves at a different pace and is also very angry. We see many closeups of his hands twitching or forming tight fists as he works hard to keep his cool, both with enemies and with his partner. It’s a pitch perfect rendering of the classic enemies-working-together-becoming-buddies type of story. And it’s got most of the fun things you hope for from an upbeat spy romp: arguing, bonding, sexual tension, drunken dancing, bad lying, casual discovery and disarming of spy devices during conversation, quick flashbacks to reveal earlier sleight of hand to steal an object or plant a bug or pull a switcheroo. The light-on-its-feet feel isn’t even dampened by the occasional bit of grim humor, like when Napoleon and Ilya debate what to do with a captured Nazi war criminal while we can see behind them that his torture chair in the next room has short-circuited and he’s currently burning alive.

It’s also a beautiful looking movie, reveling in exotic scenery and mod fashion. In the past Ritchie’s filmatism has seemed self conscious and over-the-top, but here it’s just right. He pulls out techniques like split screens or clanky old fashioned slide shows of exposition just enough, never overdoes it. It feels retro, but it’s not exactly – there’s a big three-vehicle chase sequence that digitally weaves together (I think) real stunt footage to make it seem like one shot when the cars are chasing each other over here and then the camera pulls up into the sky and pans way over here to show that the motorcycle is zooming in from over there.

One favorite sequence is when Napoleon jumps from Ilya’s speedboat to escape pursuing police and takes shelter in a parked truck. He turns on the radio, sits and enjoys a glass of wine and a sandwich that this poor truck driver seems to have prepared for a romantic picnic. We see the frenzied boat chase going on behind him while he relaxes. Then he almost slips away, but the ol’ conscience kicks in so he suddenly turns and jumps the truck off a dock onto the boat, sinking it, before dragging Ilya to safety.

The musical choices are top notch – soulful, sometimes not in English, nothing obvious, occasionally Soderbergh’s-OCEAN’S-ELEVEN-esque. But the score by Daniel Pemberton (THE COUNSELOR, STEVE JOBS) resembles a spaghetti western, as if to say “Yes, this is the early sixties, but the forward-thinking early sixties, the reinventing the world early sixties.” It takes place the year before A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS came out.

Jesus, poor Armie Hammer, he was gonna play Batman for George Miller but the plug got pulled, he played THE LONE RANGER but nobody noticed it was a great movie, then he’s in this one and it doesn’t catch on either. The guy can’t catch a break and it’s neither his fault (he’s always good) or poor choices (the movies themselves are also good). Just bad fucking luck.

That’s the only drawback to the movie – the cool TV-show-intro-style ending where you realize you’ve just seen the origin to what rightfully should’ve been an ongoing series of fun movies. I like how it revitalizes the tired technique of onscreen files by waiting to show them at the end after you already know the characters. Yeah, that totally makes sense that Ilya was the Russian Sambo champion. And that way anything that’s not relevant to this story (Hugh Grant’s character is a former opium addict!) comes across as interesting trivia instead of needless distraction.

I really loved this one. Mathematically speaking you probly missed it too, so allow me to recommend it to you.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 at 9:41 am and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

  1. I really liked this one, too. Ritchie’s gangster movies are too cutesy for me, but he’s getting better at using those techniques in actual real movies. It’s rare to see a big franchise movie like this possess any kind of visual wit or puckishness in its approach to stunts and spectacle. He’s already reached his late-period Tim Burton/Tom Jones phase where all he does is do covers of other properties in his established house style, but it seems to be a good enough use of his talents.

    I’m glad you brought up the soundtrack, Vern, because I think it’s my favorite in years. The score is rockin’ as hell, and all the needledrops are weird Euro obscurities. I’m a sucker for that shit. I’m not that broken up about the franchise not continuing, but I’d love to see a sequel to the soundtrack.

  2. I strongly second your strong recommendation. The acting, music, and cinematography were all excellent, and it was nearly perfectly paced. My jaw dropped at the audacity of the climax – first it’s shown, and then immediately flashed back to and narrated, but all in a way that comes off as a flamboyant grace note instead of a cutesy gimmick. Hard to explain if you haven’t seen it, but it’s the perfect end for a movie that’s able to maintain that kind of genuinely clever spirit for 90 minutes (or whatever its RT is).

    I’d be curious to see what you though of ROCKNROLLA, Vern. I absolutely love it, but I have the sense that its widely loathed for some reason.

  3. I think this is a case of Hollywood’s obsessive need to re-invent every existing property in history working against them. Who the fuck actually remembers The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? It’s a confusing title and it’s unnecessary to steal it, because “two 1960’s opposing cold war agents solve a mystery” is such a generic plot that you don’t need to own a property to write that script. Just make up your own character names and write the exact same story, no harm, no foul, and it might actually seem fun and original instead of desperate and clingy. I’m sure the movie’s fun (I’ve been meaning to see it for awhile now) but I’m hardly surprised that it didn’t catch fire at the box office.

  4. I watched this movie two years ago, and i was surprised by the inclusion of Brazilian Singer Tom Zé in the soundtrack of this movie

    The Man from UNCLE (2015) Soundtrack - Jimmy, Renda se

    Track : 5 - Jimmy, Renda se by Tom Zé and Valdez See our review of the soundtrack and film at http://metafilmlist.blogspot.com/2015/09/film-man-from-uncle-75...

  5. Mr. S – I’m pretty sure this has been stuck in development hell since the 90s, back when it was an only slightly obscure property. There would have been plenty of people who saw it in reruns. Throw 20 years on that and you might as well be adapting LIL ABNER for all the cultural currency it has.

    As for why they even bothered, I’m pretty sure I read that the producer who bought the rights simply wouldn’t let it go. It went through like 20 iterations (all of which cost money to develop) so I guess he just refused to cut his losses. A good movie came out of it in the end but I can’t see how anyone thought it would ever turn a profit. In the end, was all this rigamarole really easier than just coming up with your own goddamn idea?

  6. a.) The mystery in SHERLOCK HOLMES was if Mark Strong really returned from the dead and was some kind of warlock (I loved that it was totally possible, because the movie was marketed as POTC-esque fantasy fun romp. ) and how he managed to fake his supernatural abilities.Come on, the movie even had a long “This is what happened and how I figured it out” scene at the end!

    b.) I didn’t care for MEN FROM U.N.C.L.E. at all and thought it was boring, felt completely anonymous, had badly filmed and edited actionscenes and just when it started to became fun, they pulled the “Oh, the bad guy is some fictional Mengele”, including WWII stock footage, which kinda spoiled the mood. (Even if his accidental death made me chuckle.)

    c.) Mr Sublety: Can’t speak for everybody else, but here the show was never forgotten. My mutha loved it and I wish the movie would have taken a lesson or two from its tongue in cheek tone.

    d.) The score is truly great. TAKING YOU DOWN ended up on my MP3 player even before I saw the movie and has stayed on there ever since.

  7. None of Guy Ritchies HOLMES-films had a conventional mystery per se. The first one had a bit , tough. Mark Strongs faking shit to look like magic was something Holmes had to figure out. The second one is more of an action romp. Ridicoulus as fuck, but I had a blast watching it. The final showdown was pretty funny. It was a hokier version of the “battle in the minds” from Zhang Yimous HERO. But it was also a film that escalated the Deductive-Holmes-O-Vision to such a ludicrous extreme, you´d have to be a corpse to not find it enjoyable.

  8. Ace MacAshbrook

    March 1st, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Armie Hammer deserves a break. He’d make a great Jack Reacher. A Jack Reacher TV show with Armie Hammer as Reacher could be outstanding. Scruff him up a bit, bulk him out and he’s good to go. Perhaps he’s too young right now. How old was he when mustered out of the Army, 36?

  9. I remember MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (the TV show but also this movie)… Proving Mr. M’s point, I saw it and many other old shows like it in reruns and loved it/them.

    Pretty much agree with the review, only place where I depart is that I was never a Ritchie fan. Didn’t care for his gangster movies and until this one I really disliked his mainstream movies, especially the terrible HOLMES movies. Regardless, good job on this one.

    That said… Who else wants to see a ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ take on LIL ABNER now that Mr. M mentions is?

  10. I actually think that Ritchie’s in his element when making these big to medium budget blockbusters. I don’t think he’s a filmmaker who has a lot to “say,” so smaller indie films don’t quite work for him. But he’s a great stylist. I admit to really liking his steampunk version of Sherlock Holmes. I remember that for a while it was in competition with that Cumberbatch series, but at this point, I think it’s safe to say I much prefer Ritchie’s take on Holmes than the BBC’s.

    UNCLE might be my favorite Ritchie film. It’s light, fun and sleek. It’s pretty much exactly what you would want out of a retro spy movie. It’s a damn shame it didn’t do better in theaters.

  11. I loved this one. A friend I went with didn’t like it. I think he thought it was slow. I didn’t care. I think it was the style and feel of it. It was different than other movies out there and I ate it up. I remember liking the music, but for some reason I never followed that through to purchasing the soundtrack. I’ll have to remedy that now.

    I liked the chemistry between Hammer and Cavill and liked the homoerotic touches. To paraphrase Seinfeld, they’re both hot and I agree with both of them. I would love for this to have been made in whatever year in the future it becomes mainstream and acceptable for a gay relationship to develop in a movie like this.

    Just a few months ago I watched some episodes of the old TV series for the first time and this is what I had to say at the time, “I just watched a 2 part episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and oh, boy. It contained: beyond ridiculous plot points; henchmen in multiple matching outfits, one including skis; turning seawater into gold; unnecessary swinging by rope; casual misogyny; groovy musical score; cultural insensitivity, a.k.a, geisha; Telly Savalas as a caricature; knockout by karate chop; the north pole; utter nonsense; and, finally, Joan Crawford. The 60s. SMH.”

  12. Felt this film had wonderful sections but was a touch too long. (Also the end raid and chase seemed very disconnected to the film we’d just watched.)

  13. Love this film.

    Alicia Vikander sure is short when compared to Armie Hammer. She literally had to step on a table to be on the same height in one scene.

  14. Dan – I saw Rocknrolla and remember it being not that good, but not terrible either. But it had good performances all around and that foot chase in the middle was fucking fantastic.

    Had to share.

  15. I think the first SHERLOCK film are an example of something everyone assumed would be terrible (and it had a pretty awful first trailer), so when it turned out to be reasonably competent, we all started saying it was great/not that bad/a minor classic. But as it was actually just OK it hasn’t really had any enduring appeal, plus it was shortly completely overshadowed by the BBC TV Series (and to a lesser extent ELEMENTARY). Maybe if it had come out in the 90s, it would be regarded semi-fondly in the manner of THE SHADOW, THE ROCKETEER etc. and other films it mildly resembles

    I remember a lot of people defended the boxing scene as “from the books” and then it turned out it was one line referring to a “boxing background” or something. I think I got that right.

    Liked MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. a lot too, although I saw it late night in a hotel and think I drifted off a few times, so feel I need to see it again.

  16. Pacman- yeah, in the books it is basically one line. But we never heard of any adventures in which his physical skills were put to the test. If people make that kind of reach in defending why the film had turned Holmes into a brawler, they shouldn´t even have bothered. That is silly reasoning. But the way he uses his analytical thinking to get a heads up on his opponents is a clever move, I think. At least there is Holmes-reasoning applied to the fisticuffs at least.

    Also,this is something Jack Reacher always does in the books as well. Analyze his environment before he strikes.

  17. It was a good way to keep an intellectual component to his physical side I suppose, but I can’t think of a less exciting action scene then one which shows someone doing something in slow-motion and then doing the exact same thing, with no changes, at normal speed. That was the main thing that stood out for me as not working at the time, although (whisper it) I also felt Downey Jr. was really coasting in the role. One nice thing I can say is it was the first time I can recall genuinely enjoying a Jude Law performance.

  18. The most underrated movie of 2015 for my money. Love this one. I think it works so well because it’s just self-aware enough to put in ridiculous and strange things, but without going into winking at the audience territory. Weirdly, as much as I love him as Superman, I think this shows Cavill’s abilities to be a leading man more than any other, and Hammer is an excellent pairing. Also, maybe it’s because I saw it first, but I rate this as a better performance from Vikander than EX MACHINA.

  19. Well, I´ll have to give this a watch. Watching the trailer and the glowing reviews from you guys made me more nterested. I think it was that I was hoping Ritchie would have made another HOLMES and instead he made this that turned me off.

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