Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Swingin’ Sixties: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Photo by Daniel Smith, Warner Bros. Pictures)

The bar for espionage antics in 2015 has been raised unreasonably high by Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force, so I wasn’t sure at all that an old-fashioned Cold War caper like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could even compete. Sure, it was the first film by Guy Ritchie since his Robert Downey Jr-led Sherlock Holmes sequel, A Game of Shadows, and sure, the trailer promised a heaping helping of old-school charm and mid-60s mod fashion. But is that enough to put it in the ring with what is, in my opinion, the best action spy thriller in recent memory?

Well, perhaps not. It’s probably not a fair comparison, as the ticking-time-bomb tension and slick modernized gadgetry of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – not to mention its cynical, post-modern storyline – are much too du jour for the likes of U.N.C.L.E., which is based on a 1960s television series featuring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as an American and a Russian spy working together for the common good (a topical premise in 1964, to be sure, but a bit of a dated concept today). It’s exactly this old-fashioned style, however, guided by Ritchie’s careful hand, that makes his updated remake so much fun.

Here’s the thing: nothing – save perhaps for some creative film techniques – is actually “updated” about this version of U.N.C.L.E. at all. The immaculately-tailored American art thief-turned-CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is brought together in early 60s Berlin with fearsome KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and a snarky auto mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) to take down a cabal of wealthy Nazi sympathizers with ties to Teller’s rocket scientist father. So, it’s exactly the kind of paint-by-numbers “nuclear scare” plot you would expect from a Cold War-era picture based on a Cold War-era TV series. It’s within this familiar territory that Ritchie and his excellent cast find room to, if not innovate, then at least enjoy themselves.

The propulsive storytelling energy and frenetic, hyper-stylish editing of Ritchie’s early gangster films – circa Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch – finds a home at last here in U.N.C.L.E., with the benefit of time to mellow him out, rein in his more excessive habits, and produce a film that is equally stylish, but not as an end in itself. His Saul Bass-inspired wipes and split-screen effects, probably too brash and stylized in another context, are perfectly appropriate here. His screenplay (with Lionel Wigram) doesn’t contain any of the nearly-incomprehensible British slang for which he’s known, replacing that rapid-fire South London gangster patois with the snarky banter of a James Bond film (albeit one with a genuine sense of humour), which is played beautifully by his cast. His soundtrack is carefully moderated, as well, full of the same kind of funky 60s blues and soul as his older films, but now fit to the period, and chosen for their ability to bolster the tone and rhythm of a scene (and not just because they sound cool). U.N.C.L.E. is clearly the work of a more mature filmmaker, who takes time to let his camera rest on his actors’ faces, linger on character moments, and find a balance between his amped-up instincts and the sedated, Saturday-evening subject matter he’s playing with.

Alicia Vikander, Armie Hammer, and Henry Cavill in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The cast dives right into the period, too. Cavill is impeccably cast as the smarmy, unflappable Solo, all chiseled jawline and perfect coif, calm and collected where his counterpart is reckless and impulsive. Hammer makes Kuryakin supremely entertaining, with some excellent physical comedy work in showing his character’s brutish strength and uncontrollable temper. Vikander departs from her reserved and powerful performance in Ex Machina to play the mouthy Gaby, whose sexual tension with Kuryakin, with whom she is forced to play newlyweds for their cover, is one of the film’s best running gags. (Interestingly, the film is all-inclusive with its sexuality – there is an undeniable homoerotic edge to the competition between Solo and Kuryakin, too.) All three leads trip over their accents: the Brit plays the American, the American plays the Russian, and the Swede plays the German, resulting in more than a few off-key line deliveries. It doesn’t seem unintentional, though – Cavill’s bursting-at-the-seams Britishness just lends his American voice a bit of Mid-Atlantic Cary Grant charm (which is appropriate for the period), and Hammer’s accent, in particular, sounds far too cartoonishly “moose-and-sqvirrel” to be a mistake. It’s as stylized and tongue-in-cheek as the rest of the film, which really just goes to show how much of an eye for detail Ritchie really has. The bit parts resonate, too: Elizabeth Debicki as the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra (I hope that phrase is as fun for you as it was for me) brings the same scene-stealing presence she brought to another recent remake, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Sylvester Groth infuses his recognizable Nazi persona (as Joseph Goebbels in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) with an even more cartoonish sadism.

U.N.C.L.E.’s greatest strength is its comedy, which comes through less in the script’s hit-and-miss banter and more in the way Ritchie mines the classic spy genre’s bag of clichés for fresh and inventive laughs (the unexpected way the Nazi torturer is dispatched, for example; the way Solo, after witnessing Kuryakin’s formidable strength firsthand, refers to him as an “it”; or a particularly gut-busting sequence where Kuryakin engages in a speedboat chase while Solo indulges in a snack). It knows to use its Cold War setting as a playground, not a prison whose rules must be obeyed – and in breaking from the traditionally serious storytelling of the original series’ early seasons (which by necessity engaged its themes of global cooperation with sobriety), this remake finds a uniquely effective way to make this familiar material feel fresh.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may not hold a candle to its contemporaries in terms of pure excitement or jaw-dropping action setpieces, and it may occasionally trip on its way across the checkpoint, so to speak, but it’s dripping with old-fashioned charm – from its unspeakably beautiful and well-dressed cast to its stylized editing – and it makes for a fun, accessible, and energetic take on an outdated concept. Acknowledging (and sometimes transcending) its classic pedigree makes it not only a richly satisfying spy romp, but one of two successful films coming out in 2015 featuring a dashing rogue named Solo. Time will tell how the other one will turn out.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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