Few filmmakers understand how to make “style over substance”, not in any way a negative, the way Guy Ritchie (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RockNRolla) can. His films are shallow, but since they’re only concerned with making you smile you almost don’t mind how empty they are. In the case of The Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie’s creates a laid back and frisky take on a forgotten ’60s spy series is pure empty fluff…and yet so undeniably stylish and fun. This movie is light on its feet, utterly inconsequential, but it is so charming, witty and stylish that the unpretentious sights & sounds make for a truly sublime pleasure to look at and listen to. Less concerned with the prestige of the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films or the stunt showcase of the Mission Impossible movies or the satirical bite of Kingsman, this movie coasts on showcasing the untapped charms of new-blood actors Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki. This movie is a fetish piece for anyone who loves the pop side of the ’60s, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it thoroughly.
This jazzy adventure follows American master thief-turned suave superspy Napoleon Solo (Cavill) as he is forced to team with stodgy Russian counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) and a streetwise East German defector Gabby (Vikander) to stop a dastardly plot by the indelible Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki). Cue hijinks and shenanigans! The story and the plot are literally that simple but what you’d be staying for is the execution. This movie has some things that many genre pictures have been missing in our age of spectacle: distinct characters and a unique vibe.
Solo is by far the best character here and by distancing himself from whatever he brought to Superman in the polarizing Man of Steel, Cavill instead delights in playing the slick, unfazed and ultra-cool super-spy the modern James Bond hopes to be when he grows up; his effortless swagger is enough to overpower the by-the-numbers dialogue that the script forces into his mouth transforming it into something approaching wit. Vikander manages the same but all the more remarkable is the character Ritchie has crafted around this relative newcomer. Not content to be a “Bond-girl” or “action damsel,” Vikander’s Gabby plays like the spunky cousin to Eva Green’s Vesper from Casino Royale: a woman who’s aware of the men she’s surrounded by but never overshadowed by them; in fact she’s more amused by these hunks while off playing her own role independent of them.
Debicki on the other hand might be my favorite “villain” in the 2015 blockbuster season. She takes full advantage of her statuesque screen presence and a sultry line-delivery. She has more in common with Jada Pinkett’s character from Magic Mike XXL than any modern action movie antagonist and the best part is that her gender is never brought up in any demeaning way (her role was originally written for a man until she auditioned for Ritchie) though her on-screen chemistry with Cavill puts many movie XX/XY pairing to shame. Hammer, meanwhile, acquits himself from his dismal Lone Ranger performance by embracing the cartoon Russian superspy stereotype and making him still human.
The actors nail the characters and accentuate the whole vibe of the operation by leaning into 60s camp and elevating it into a relaxed kind of cool. It helps that they all look good too, with costumes (no product placement here) by Academy Award nominee Joanna Johnston (Forrest Gump) doing her best work here designing the best 60s suits, dresses and accessories to ever exist outside the 60s (Vikander wears a mod dress so well that its seems stitched from the fabric of space-time, itself).
Being shot on gorgeous European locations (from the Spanish Steps to the Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit in West Sussex) that are no-doubt enhanced by a team of set-dressers & designers results in a blend of artifice & authenticity to the proceedings. Add to the lush and stylized visuals the jazzy score by Daniel Pemberton as well as the deep cuts of 60s pop songs and you have one movie that practically explodes with style. Which all helps to erode the weakest elements of the film: action. Guy Ritchie really does not have an eye for direction, composition and choreography of action movies but he makes up for that in this movie through crafty editing and punctuating these sequences with clever punchlines. It also helps that there are so few actual action sequences and most of them are not even shown on screen but rather implied or shown from a non-participant’s POV. By backgrounding the “action” and foregrounding the stuff that Guy’s sensibilities are more attuned to, Man from UNCLE is almost an “anti-action” movie where violence and destruction are better left avoided than make them the sole attraction. If the movie was just the cast trading witticisms about fashion and spy-intrigue while wining & dining at a upscale venues, it would still have worked wonders.
Although the film is fairly low-tech and mid-budget, it’s got an air of sophistication to it that’s more aimed to adults than the typical PG-13 genre crowd and that’s what I liked about it. In the end, what matters most is the chemistry of the style (costumes, sets, music, editing etc) the performers (Cavill and Hammer and Vikander and Debick) and the confident direction of Ritchie. Sure, it feels like Ritchie isn’t trying too hard here, but that’s fine as he’s instead more content to simply relax into a vision of an era and attitudes in all the right ways. If you have a fondness for the genre and a particular love of ’60s pop, The Man From UNCLE is the summer’s big fizzy drink, all bubbles, and like a fine champagne at a party that will be gone as soon as it’s all over, the smile it puts on your face will undoubtedly linger.