Guy Ritchie has carved out a very distinct brand of film-making. With each passing film from him, you can expect smart, slick action blockbusters that mix sensibilities of hardboiled crime fiction with an oeuvre of camp visual comedy. Case in point: his recent success in re-imagining the iconic sleuth Sherlock Holmes for the screen. However, at times, his overindulgence can often be a crude turn-off.1 In his latest feature, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie is able to curb some of his overbearing stylistic choices and the final result is a fairly enjoyable film that sets the foundation for a possible movie franchise.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes its premise from the television series that ran from 1964-68, set amidst the backdrop of Cold War tensions.2 U.N.C.L.E. had the unique premise of having an American agent named Napolean Solo and a Russian agent named Illya Kuryakin working together. Ritchie’s film adaptation of the television series keeps this unique premise alive but serves more as an origin story as to how these two agents from disparately opposite backgrounds and ideologies come to work together. Hence much of the film revolves around Solo (suavely played by Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer with a terrible Russian accent) involving themselves in games of one-upsmanship and a psychological dick measuring contest: in reductive cinematic terms, this is also known as ‘male bonding’.
Thankfully, that’s not the only catalyst driving the narrative. There is a plot here, albeit a wafer-thin one. It involves recovering a nuclear warhead that has found itself into the wrong hands – ‘wrong’ here implies a third party that isn’t the Unites States or U.S.S.R, hence forcing the KGB and CIA to work together. The only way to infiltrate and bring down this ultra-secret organisation that threatens world security is by using Gabi Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic behind the Iron Curtain to contact her “uncle” (a very lame name-drop of the title) who apparently has links with the organisation. Can our unlikely heroes get over their dick measuring contest and work together to save the world?
Many other directors might have set the film’s highly reductive narrative as just a loose placeholder for expansive action set-pieces. However, in Ritchie’s hands, despite a far-fetched plotline, the film turns into a restrained examination of masculinity and male relationships. In fact, the film has decidedly few action sequences. Intuitively, this must work against the film, but remarkably, this stylistic choice has the opposite effect. U.N.C.L.E. sets itself apart from action heavy but lacking in exposition type of films in the genre. Hence, when the action set-pieces arrive, they are adequately built-up and subsequently, have more impact.
John Mathieson’s cinematography is exceptional and helps in establishing a slick sensibility to the film. Special mention must go to how neatly the action scenes are shot. Daniel Pemberton’s music allows Ritchie’s playfulness to come to the fore, especially in the action scenes. The real star of the film however, is Joanna Johnston’s costuming. The immaculate costume choices and design of all the cast members enhances and compliments the kind of roles they are playing. Henry Cavill’s successful makeover from the new-age rugged Superman to the smooth talking Solo would not have been convincing without the large lapelled tailored suits. There is a cute scene in the film where Kuryakin and Solo discuss the difference in fashion choices for people in the States and the Soviet Union. The costuming is also one of the major reasons why the film looks convincing in its Cold War period setting.
For a film that’s so preoccupied about male camaraderie, it’s somewhat pleasantly surprising that the standout performance is not by either of the two male leads, but by Alicia Vikander. It’s heartening to see that the action blockbuster genre is letting go of its bad habits regarding the reductive utilisation of female characterisation and roles. After Rebecca Ferguson’s impeccable turn in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Vikander here gets a suitably meaty role to really shine as an actor in a film that’s otherwise very male-centric. Armie Hammer’s borderline insulting and largely terrible Russian accent hinders an otherwise decent performance as Kuryakin. Australian Elizabeth Debecki is allowed to be a svelte and suitably dangerous femme fatale and enacts her limited role with conviction. Vikander’s standout performance is not the only surprise in the acting department. Hugh Grant’s role as Waverly is delightful and it’s lovely to see that he has lost none of his dry British charm. He delivers the film’s most cheeky and memorable lines in a cameo late in the second half.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ends up being an impressive origin story that strikes the right balance between Ritchie’s trademark cinematic sensibilities and inverting some oft-used action film tropes. It’s plot might not be revolutionary, but the overall execution makes the final product a thoroughly enjoyable venture.