Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

By Ben Gruchow

August 17, 2015

Mmm. Grapes.

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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.

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