I have not seen the 1960’s series on which Guy Ritchie’s new film is based, so I have no grounds there for comparison. On its own, Ritchie’s remake is great fun at points and problematic at other points. In any such movie much rests on a proper chemistry between the main duo, which marketing—posters, billboards, trailers—assures viewers will have some level of parity. While there is certainly a promising repartee between Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, the dynamic doesn’t quite make good on what it promises throughout.
The film’s story follows the two secret agents from either side of the Iron Curtain: Solo, the playboy American master thief living out his sentence by running missions for the CIA, and Kuryakin, the brooding, hulking KGB superman. Stuck between the two men of mystery is Gabby, the estranged daughter of a missing Nazi nuclear scientist, played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander. After an initial clash in which Solo tries to get Gabby over the Berlin Wall, the American and the Soviet find themselves saddled together by the bosses of their respective agencies. Before long the American, Russian, and German trio whisk off to Rome on an undercover mission to thwart two Italian crypto-fascist shipping magnates’ quest to build a nuclear weapon.
The lazy criticism of Guy Ritchie’s update of the 1960’s television series is that it is all style and no substance. It is a criticism that is not altogether unfair, but it is one you’ll find yourself constantly leveling—unthinkingly—at a filmmaker so largely known for his style. I must confess, I am a bit of a Ritchie devotee, that is, at least for now, when he sticks to his element: to the melting pot of London’s underground, with its cockneyed gangsters and comedies of errors, to the picaresque worlds of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RocknRolla. That is the realm where he thrives.
Moreover, Ritchie’s more rhythmic and melancholy juxtaposition sequences—noticeable in how they stand out between his signature whimsical rapid-fire editing—are often moments when the filmmaker breaks character to add substance and characterization to what otherwise amount to gangster comedies. In the underrated RocknRolla, for example, there is a sequence depicting a strung-out heroin junkie rock star’s use of a box of cigarettes to illustrate multiple things going on in the characters and the narrative, making clever use of the editing. It’s hardly deeply serious or probing film making, but it’s the nugget you are apt to overlook when leveling the “all style and no substance” criticism.
The best example of this in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a scene in which the horrors of World War II are shown in a slideshow of photographs while a villainous ex-Nazi tells his story and prepares to torture Napoleon Solo. On the lighter side of things, there is Ritchie’s knack for making use of the foreground and background to great comedic effect. In an interview, the director revealed that budget restrictions forced he and co-writer Lionel Wigram to execute a boat chase in the film using cuts between Kuryakin on the boat and Solo watching from safety as he eats a sandwich. Strong comedic moments such as these make you think—almost—that the film will work.
Unfortunately, no amount of film making cleverness and minutiae will get around the fact that one half of the film’s duo is woefully underwritten. Henry Cavill is by all accounts a fine actor, but the part just doesn’t give him much to work with, and his performance ends up cutting it a little too close to parody, as the character doesn’t have much to do except run the short gamut of womanizing spy clichés. The development is clearly one-sided, as Kuryakin gets to have some character arcing, in due largely to Vikander’s Gabby, who poses as the hardened Russian’s fiancée as part of their cover. The softening of the thuggish KGB’s heart over the course of their mission provides some moments acknowledged vocally—“Awwww….”—by some women in the audience. It’s clear that Vikander’s charming performance is what’s really holding her two male costars’ chemistry together.
Much like his first Sherlock Holmes film (his other foray into franchise filmmaking) Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seems to be setting up a series of films. The director’s just plain cool style of film making lends itself well to the slickness and glitz of a 60’s Cold War romp, but I fear that without my biased lenses the world of this remake appears a bit too uneven and bland.
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