A little bit of charm goes a long way these days. Guy Ritchie's jazzy adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. coasts by on debonair swagger alone for most of its running time. The bloated plot that revolves around Russian and American spies battling ex-Nazi sympathizers in 1960s Europe is completely secondary to the blinding gleam of Henry Cavill's smile or the poetry of Alicia Vikander's gaze. Now that's true star power.
The film stands out from the typical August drudgery Hollywood likes to unleash at the tail end of summer because it has a pulse. Our standards may have fallen, but instead of boo-hooing the state of current American cinema—which by all reasonable assumptions is quite strong at the moment—it's more productive to cherish the small virtues of Ritchie's glitzy superficial style.
Long gone are the gray, rough-and-tumble days of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch; the British auteur more known for his marriage to Madonna now favors ornate architecture, colorful clothing and flashy secret agents. The stylistic foreshadowing can be seen in his post-modern updating of Sherlock Holmes, which contains its own barrage of slow motion, split screens and fast-cutting action.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has its fair share of kinetics, but the actors themselves manage to instill the film with life. As disgraced military man Napoleon Solo, Cavill embodies the physical prowess most would associate with post-WWII American might. Yet the character is up front about his arrogance, greed and selfishness, which ultimately allows Solo the opportunity to evolve. Armie Hammer's Russian brute Illya Kuryakin also takes on surprising resonance. His anger issues stem from a conflict of national and political identity.
Both actors have a blast trading verbal barbs, which often escalate into physical confrontations. Their actions underline a common insecurity of purpose that both men can't escape. Despite being employed with clear-cut directives from their respective clandestine government agencies, Solo and Kuryakin often go rogue in order to protect each other and Gaby Teller (Vikander), the East German mechanic with a shady past that binds them together. God and country are less important than a common sense of right and wrong.
It's unfortunate that Ritchie loses sight of his characters' complexity as the convoluted "race against time" narrative compels them each to be less human and more super-human. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. should be gaining traction from its excellent set-up it instead begins to replicate the banal hyper-stressed pacing of most big-budget action films.
As he did with Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie's main concern is to establish a fine foundation for more sequels to come. This could explain why the film gets so plodding later on, introducing Hugh Grant's equally spiffy British intelligence officer who will act as the new leader of U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Apparently the fine folks at Warner Bros. believe they have a franchise on their hands.
While the film's box office potential remains to be seen, its existence can only help Cavill and Hammer's stock rise a bit. Both actors show a lot of verve with characters that could have been easily dismissed as stock roles. Ritchie gives all of his performers the room to be graceful, including Vikander, who showcased her natural intensity earlier this year in Alex Garland's Ex Machina.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E, which opens in wide release on Friday, Aug. 14, showcases the best and worst impulses of an industry predicated on image. Ritchie's film understands how surface level confidence can mask something far more interesting and broken, but also commits the ultimate crime of indulging its own pomp and circumstance in the name of future returns.
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