Alicia Vikander Armie Hammer

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review: When Obviousness Can Be a Virtue

Friday, August 21, 2015 Rob Samuelson

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



Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki
Rating: Four stars out of five.
Available in theaters now.

Shooting an action sequence is difficult. Parts and humans are moving, multiple cameras are running simultaneously, pyrotechnics have to be perfectly timed, CGI has to be anticipated, and more things go into it. Filmmakers typically have to make the sequences look seamless, too.

One of the neatest things about director Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that the difficulty of those action sequences – and there are many – is right there in the open. Ritchie employs a split-screen effect several times to show every angle of an action beat. The how of these scenes is important to Ritchie, and he dives into them with aplomb.

Taking cues from Brian De Palma – one of the great visual stylists – Ritchie puts it all on the screen for the audience to digest. We see the Cold War henchmen as they assemble, coordinate movements, get hit, shot, and more. This all happens while our heroes, an American just suave enough to avoid total cheeseball status, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), and Soviet loose cannon Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) team up, make disdainful faces at each other and those men who would have them killed, and let their elite spy training take over, displaying both their innovative sides and their inefficiencies, allowing for the other to correct and complement. With the split-screen in effect, every aspect of this happens in what appears to be real time. The audience is privy to the elements that make up these moments, from second to second.

For much of the movie, Ritchie handles the why of things well, too, even if they are on the nose in their thematic cleverness. Cavill's Solo is brash, never lacking in confidence that he will get the job done – fitting that he represents early '60s America before Vietnam went south. Hammer's Kuryakin is all negative reinforcement, a leashed dog who wants out of his situation, but he can't get that because his handlers will throw him in a gulag if he does not succeed. That each man is forced to work together to preserve their respective governments' pride is a fun – if not exactly nuanced or even factually correct – way of saying that the Cold War, in the end, was all about preventing nuclear explosions around the world.

And so Solo and Kuryakin trade put-downs as a way of saving face, ignoring that there are more people in the world than themselves (and the people they represent). Enter Alicia Vikander's Gaby, an East German auto mechanic whose scientist father had been forced to work on the Nazis' nuclear program two decades earlier. He has been kidnapped and coerced again into building a bomb for the film's villain, Elizabeth Debicki's Victoria. Solo is tasked with smuggling Gaby out of East Germany so they can use her to get to her father.

Gaby is obviously far more brilliant and capable than the two reluctant partners in spying can allow themselves to see. But for the audience, the “reveal” is clear as day long before it happens – for Solo and Kuryakin, though, it's a shock. And it's all part of Ritchie's clever way of putting the obvious in front of the viewer, not trying to be a magician and distract. He's saying, “Here it is, I hope you like it.”

And Vikander's portrayal of Gaby is what gets you to like it. Yes, her accent – Vikander is Swedish – can be spotty. Gaby is able to play the grown-up when the situation calls for it. In a mugging orchestrated by the villains to out Kuryakin as a spy, Gaby (portraying his fiancé for the mission) calms him and forces him to swallow his pride for the sake of achieving their goal. It is her cold and hilarious solution that drives the resolution of the plot.

But mostly, when she is able to let her hair down, she gives the movie its heart. She does this goofy, drunken dance to Solomon Burke's “Cryto Me” that might rival the choreographed dance Oscar Isaac does in another Vikander-starring movie from this year, Ex Machina. It's so silly and shot as a classic Simpsons sight gag, all happening in the background while Kuryakin plays chess, trying to ignore her. She has a Chaplin-style wobbliness to her movement during the dance, making it the perfect way to dislodge Kuryakin from his rigid sense of never having fun.

It's a welcome moment of genuine levity at a time when the script comes close to going off the rails with jokes and wordplay that are too clever by half. Lines that should play like satire instead come off as just on the wrong side of smug, a too-obvious way of saying, “How silly we are for fighting because we would be so much better off if we worked together!” That's a fine theme and Ritchie explores it well in the action sequences, but it can be a little too much when spoken so plainly by the actors.

Luckily, Vikander and the action snap the movie back into place and it zooms to a conclusion. It has fun pulling the rug out from the audience with an action scene that would be the climax of 99 percent of other movies, but instead only puts the pieces in place for the real resolution.

And in the end, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the right kind of summer popcorn entertainment. It has some light social commentary going on and performances filled with charm, but generally it's a flick dedicated to crafting a fine piece of visual entertainment. 

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