The Man from UNCLE (2015)
Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram
Directed by Guy Ritchie
I have never seen a single episode of The Man from UNCLE, but I understood the basic premise via cultural osmosis. An American spy and a Soviet spy team up to fight the menace of a third party, THRUSH. This group was composed of people so dangerous that even nations that were ideologically opposed would join forces to stop them. When you understand the depth & breadth of red scare propaganda in the United States, then the fact that the seriesThe Man from UNCLE was such a huge hit is pretty extraordinary. The main enemy in the story is the remnants of the Nazis, which given historical context, is sort of funny that the U.S. is fighting against them. My biggest takeaway from the movie adaptation is that this is one of the gayest films I’ve seen in quite a while.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a professional thief forced into service by the CIA when caught. In 1963, he is in East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). She’s the daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, a former Nazi scientist who had been collaborating with the United States. Dr. Teller has gone missing, and the CIA thinks Gaby knows how to find him. Solo runs afoul of Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), an imposing KGB agent investigating similar disappearances for the Soviet government. After tussling in their first meeting, Solo & Kuryakin are less than happy to find out their respective governments have decided to join forces because the kidnapped scientists are part of a plan to unleash nuclear horror. Our two spies are put in various situations where only their cooperation will get them out of trouble.
While there are two prominent female “romantic” interests in Gaby and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), that is not the core love story. All of the sexual tension in the movie is happening between Solo and Kuryakin to the point that the filmmakers have to be doing this on purpose. The constant looks back and forth between these men can be interpreted as anger and lust, two emotions that often get tangled up in each other. Solo & Kuryakin are always on the edge of physically clashing with each other, and near the end of the movie, I was reading this as a desire for a kind of intimacy. The cultures they come from might not like them being openly expressive of same-sex attraction (though literature from the Soviet Union points to a society becoming more accepting of queer people long before the United States). Nevertheless, I have no doubts that this movie is about the attraction between these two men. If they had played into that angle, it would have made it a better film because it would genuinely be building on the series’s base concept and exploring something new.
It’s sad to say the movie is a dud, though. In true Guy Ritchie fashion, he has to over-stylize the picture to the point that it feels detached from anything relatable. Big chase sequences are framed by an obviously green-screened background and intentional play with perspective. In some moments, the picture approaches a Sin City-level aesthetic which clashes with most of the picture, which does not look like this. Ritchie feels like he’s also trying to adapt anime he’s watched but couldn’t get a job directing movies of. I love when a director pulls out all the stops and makes a highly stylized movie, I just ask that style (like tone) be consistent throughout. If you go big in the opening sequence, you’ve set a bar I expect to see the movie raise throughout the runtime. That’s the nature of action movies; each set piece must inevitably be topped by the next. You’d have to be a filmmaker far cleverer than Guy Ritchie to get away with bucking that genre structure.
While both leads do what they were hired to do, provide visual eye candy for the audience, they both are pretty charmless. Armie Hammer is funny in moments, but Kuryakin is still a Western interpretation of a Soviet and follows all the tired cliches from the Cold War era. He is emotionally distant and prone to violence, wholly devoted to his country. Now, look at America right now. Does that description sound familiar to anyone? Solo is just Cavill doing his Cavill schtick. I won’t deny that his casting as the worst Superman in the franchise’s history does taint my view of the actor. However, he isn’t an actor; he’s a handsome dude who looks good on camera. There’s no performance here that’s going to wow anybody. I found the female characters to be more interesting than our male leads.
By the end of the movie, I just didn’t give a shit about the plot or anything that was happening. There are so many twists upon twists that it becomes silly at a certain point, and I don’t think entirely intentional. But, like The A-Team, if you want something wholly one-note and as effervescent as cotton candy, The Man from UNCLE will do. I can’t imagine ever sitting down to watch this one again, but I don’t feel I wasted my time with a single viewing.