Guy Ritchie has a crack at the Cold War with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But is he cool enough?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. CIA Man walks into a mechanic in East Berlin. He says to the female mechanic “your ex-nazi dad has some nuclear bomb plans. We need to find him.” Turns out the ex-nazi dad is working for some bad nazi-ish people. So the CIA man teams up with a KGB agent and the mechanic to find her dad and stop the threat of nuclear war. Hang on, I missed a bit with speed boat battles, dance wrestling and a three-way car chase. Anyway, the CIA guy says “nuclear? I hardly know ‘er!”… No? OK forget it.
A lot of good directors tend to have a particular style. Guy Ritchie definitely has a style, but it’s impossible to pin down. U.N.C.L.E couldn’t be further from his gangster brit flicks like Snatch or Lock Stock. Even so, there’s a consistent adaptive style that translates as a pitch perfect cinematic instinct. What this all means is the film is set in the sixties and it looks damn good. Words like stylish and sleek have been popular adjectives, and they are accurate. The use of an unbridled swinging sixties sheen cuts through the unavoidable cold war tension of the era, but always keeps in the peripheries. No small feat.
Ritchie is at his core an experimenter. Each film he directs is filled with small but unmissable doodles, cinematographic sketches. With U.N.C.L.E even the subtitles get the treatment. They’re big, bold, bright yellow, moving all over the screen. There’s a moment when two characters talk in German behind a closed car door. You can’t hear them, but the subtitles are there. Small but deliberate steps towards making necessary elements luxurious.
The best work was done on the numerous car chases. By blending CGI and actual driving in smooth, cutaway-free shots, you get a completely different kind of action. Outside of car-centric franchises, the car chase is something of a dead art-form. U.N.C.L.E smacks new life into it.
Throughout all of this you have the classic eclectic Guy Ritchie soundtrack. His last two films (Sherlock Holmes 1+2) used a Hans Zimmer score, but a film like U.N.C.L.E demands pop culture. With this choreographed songbook comes some boldly long shots that wouldn’t have worked without the right music attached.
Casting was solid, showing some new sides to familiar faces. As Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill cracks open his Man of Steel shell and oozes with womanising charm and neatly pressed bravado. In the red corner Armie Hammer demolishes any bad memories left over from The Lone Ranger and brings it as a domineering and unstable KGB agent. Elizabeth Debicki reignites the flickering femme fatale, proving gravitas and impenetrability make effective firewood. Character-wise, Hugh Grant is the delightfully British hero of the film, peppering the third act drama with smirks and sardony.
This is the part where you say, for all its style, the film lacks substance. In a way it’s true: all the intrigue and twists are brought to the surface for all to see. Refreshing as this is, it does leave the film a little flat at times. Some key plot points appear overexplained, and flashbacks are compacted into what happened thirty seconds ago. This is a cap-tip to the episodic storyline of the TV show, but if the audience doesn’t know that it can be jarring.
A film like U.N.C.L.E is also very dependent on the novelty of the subject and the director’s flavour. With its growing popularity there’ll most likely be a sequel and it undoubtedly won’t be as well received. That’s no fault of the film itself, but it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E has been recognised as a love letter to old school Bond films and general sixties spy obsession. But in reality it’s much more than a fond memory. Rather than nostalgic, it’s inventive, experimental. Rather than adaptation in-jokes, the humour is fresh.
The sign of any good adaptation is the films ability to exist in its own right. While breathing fresh, foolish, hyper kinetic life into a TV institution, U.N.C.L.E has earned the right to that individuality.