Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
By Ben Gruchow
August 17, 2015

Mmm. Grapes.

In the world of August 2015 as it looked from August 2014, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is released and becomes a de facto highlight of the late-summer movie season. It’s quick, sharp, the cast has chemistry, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it manages to come in at just under two hours. It’s muted praise, but it’s not nothing, and we’re coming in at the end of a summer that frequently hasn’t been able to rise to even those levels.

Unfortunately, Paramount went and screwed everything up by moving Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to July 31st, giving U.N.C.L.E. barely two weeks to rebuild market anticipation for another action-adventure movie based on an old TV show. and Henry Cavill (indisputably the better known of the two headliners, if only because of Man of Steel) is no Tom Cruise. To make matters worse, Rogue Nation is quicker, sharper, has better chemistry, generates tension along with its playfulness, and it feels shorter than The Man From U.N.C.L.E. even if it’s not. This sets the newer movie at a disadvantage that is frankly not very fair to it, and there are a few areas I can think of where the absence of Rogue Nation would have been to U.N.C.L.E.’s benefit.

These areas are fairly minor, all told; a great heaping portion of U.N.C.L.E.’s liabilities are baked into it naturally, and I’d rather not go into a comparison of the minor ways in which one movie handicapped the other. I’ll give one example: Alicia Vikander’s Gaby Teller has an alluring screen presence, and she proves herself equal to the movie’s co-leads. When watching her as a getaway driver in an early action sequence notable for its slickness, however, it’s impossible not to think of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and the downright terrific motorcycle/car chase she took part in two weeks ago.

Those co-leads, by the way, are Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, played broadly by Cavill and Armie Hammer, in a story that’s mostly about the two spies learning how to work together. The nominal main storyline, involving the usual nukes and/or megalomaniacal plans for world domination/destruction, is given precisely the nominal amount of attention required. This is never more apparent than in the narrative’s resolution, which is as tossed-off and glib as you can really get; it passes muster, barely - and only by comparison, and only then really because Fantastic Four came out just last week and redefined the concept of an abrupt ending.

There’s more time and effort invested in the character byplay, and the results are, in general, satisfactory: Cavill is generally effective at suppressing his British accent to play an immovably droll CIA spy. Hammer plays it straight, and is arguably more successful at selling his side of things: his Kuryakin is comprised almost entirely of reactions, exhalations, flicks of the eyes. Cavill and Hammer pull off the not-insignificant task of selling us on the camaraderie and effort of a duo who really never come around to liking each other or being more than slightly unwilling to kill each other if it suits the mission - and any given scene between these two has more chemistry and sets off more sparks than any scene between any other character in the movie.

Insofar as the two of them were intended to absolutely overshadow every other player in the game, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a success. There is an exchange between the two of them from across a hotel hallway that’s a small treasure of timing - and another conversation, later on, framing background activity that delivers on the viciously dark comic edge we’ve seen bubbling under the character interaction.

The rest of the movie is amiable enough but indistinct, in both incident and visuals. Hugh Grant makes something of an impression as an intelligence agent, but he’s brought into the game relatively late; Jared Harris is visible mostly as a plot dispensary (while pulling off an American accent that’s noticeably more polished than Cavill’s). The action sequences are true to form for director Guy Ritchie, which is to say that they often possess the movement and consequence of an elaborate setpiece without possessing the equivalent clarity or rhythm.

This is mostly inoffensive; in that first chase sequence, there’s generally no moment where we’re not able to follow individual movements and transitions, and the next major action sequence is slow enough in its conception that the aesthetic doesn’t differ much from what we see in the rest of the movie, which is framed with nice balance and depth by John Mathieson (in a moment while one of the participants takes a snack break in a truck while the other attempts to evade capture in a speedboat, it also contains the only other part of the movie where there’s much playfulness in the framing).

The final set piece, though, involving a Jeep, a dune buggy, and a motorcycle, is godawful - hectically shot with none of the rest of the movie’s skill or care, stuffed to the gills with CGI that is thoroughly competent without ever really being convincing, and over-edited to within an inch of its life. (I would give quite a lot for a moratorium on artificially created crash-zooms: those moments where we get a sloppy pan or tilt into an shot, and then we quickly zoom in or out of a particular element of the frame, as if we’re watching a gritty documentary rather than a multimillion-dollar feature film.

In the most galling of these, the frame is partially or entirely CGI; this means that the shot was professionally arranged to look unprofessional. This coy faux-documentary tactic has pervaded films where it’s irrelevant or detrimental to the story - but the crash-zoom technique is in a category all its own, and there’s no real reason for it to exist here except to create work for the special effects guys.) Anyway, this sequence goes on forever; when it does grind to a halt, we’re grateful for all the wrong reasons.

We’ve been to this cinematic well many times before, and we need some sort of wrinkle or take on the material, and nothing here is really that refreshing or new. I tend not to truck with the idea that an adaptation’s quality should be graded on a curve relative to how loyal it is to its source material; this means that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lives or dies on how it stands out as a thing in and of itself. There’s the good movie, and there’s the unobjectionable one; this movie illustrates very clearly the difference between the two. The good one came out a couple of weeks ago.