Saturday, September 19, 2015

"The Man From U.N.C.L.E." Review: A Flat Out Fun Bit Of Popcorn Style Entertainment

Reviving old television shows into movie franchises was all the rage back in the 90's. You had The Addam's Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, McCale's Navy and countless other films better left forgotten. The only one to survive the chopping block and become a success beyond simple name recognition of the show it was based off of was Mission: Impossible. This long running franchise is still running full steam ahead with it's fifth entry released just a few weeks ago. The thing to take from this is that perhaps the spy genre is more inclined to succeed where others have failed which is something that both Warner Bros. and Ritchie is hoping that happens with their latest revival effort, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a literal throwback to the style and times of the Cold War which fueled the original show the film is based on. What are the results of their efforts? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 56 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: August 14, 2015

Loves: Snatch, Rock N Rolla
Likes: Retro style spy flicks, Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies
Neutral:  Old television shows turned into movies
Hates: Ritchie's penchant for style over substance
Where's our sequel to Rock N Rolla?: Sadly with each passing year it seems less and less likely.

It is 1963 and the tensions between Russia and the United States of America is at its peak. With each side of this Cold War completely distrustful of the other a mysterious third party has manifested to take advantage of the warring nations by constructing a nuclear bomb. Momentarily putting their differences aside the two world powers decide to partner up by putting each nation's best agent together, the dashing loner Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) from stateside and the one man army Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) from behind the red curtain, to find, infiltrate and neutralize this rising threat. Can these two spies work together for the greater good or will their machismo antics result in the world going boom?

You should know right out the gate that prior knowledge of the original television show that director Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (henceforth to be referred to as TMFU) is based upon is not necessary to fully enjoy it's highly stylized and comedically inclined Cold War era story of Spy versus Spy. This is coming from someone who has never seen a single episode of the show and has no real knowledge to base how true the film adaptation is to the television series. Why is this important? Wouldn't being a fan of the show be more helpful for those looking for a faithful translation from the small screen to the big screen? While normally the answer to that question would be a resounding yes, in this particular case it isn't as important as one might assume.

Ritchie has always been a style over substance sort of filmmaker which despite sounding like a knock is actually a compliment. He has made some of the best crime comedies in the past couple decades with the cult classic Snatch and the less successful but similarly styled Rock N Rolla. Ritchie then went on to become a big budget studio director when he provided the canvas for Robert Downey Jr. to take a bow as the infamous detective Sherlock Holmes which he subsequently followed up with a sequel that was every bit as good and perhaps even better than the first. It was then we got to see the same flashy filmmaking we saw in his previous efforts combined with a period piece and the results were often times uneven but nevertheless exhilarating.

With TMFU Ritchie has nearly perfected this unusual mash up of period piece meets hot flash which has resulted in a uniquely hip style of period filmmaking that is equal parts smart espionage thriller and buddy comedy. What really sells this unorthodox mixture is some really interesting casting choices. Instead of hiring one or more Hollywood box office winners Ritchie has filled his ode to the spy flicks of old with an eclectic trio of actors who bring a sort of cool charm to their respective characters that a big name actor whose larger than life personality would likely overshadow. They say casting is key to the success of any film whether it has a good or bad script and that is most certainly the case here.

Henry Cavill (better known as the Man of Steel) gets to show much more range here than he ever did wearing that red cape as this suave and debonair side comes out in full force. While some may be inclined to call his performance here a bit stiff and one note there is no denying the amount of natural charisma and penchant for sarcasm he brings to the role. The other side of the coin is Armie Hammer who aside from his breakout role in David Fincher's The Social Network playing both Winklevoss twins has had a difficult time finding a part that fits his good looks and somewhat stiff personality. As the Russian assassin Illya however he seems to have found his calling as he not only pulls off a near flawless Russian accent but also successfully imparts a palpable sense of angst that will make you believe he is a force to be reckoned with.

Completing this unlikely trio is Alicia Vikander as Gaby, the not-so-damsel in distress who must work with both spies in order to track down her father, the man creating the bomb for the deliciously evil Victoria Vinnciguera (Elizabeth Debicki) who also makes impression with very little screen time. Vikander plays the role with a fierce fragility that makes her seem vulnerable to both of these men in her life but never to the point of feeling out of control. The rest of the cast is also topnotch with a number of high profile actors such as the aforementioned Debicki, Jared Harris and a typically smug Hugh Grant delivering supporting performances that all add to the immense amount of fun that everyone seems to be having.

Probably the best example of the film's unique and dry sense of humor is a torture scene that takes place in its late second act. Usually torture scenes are about extracting information by means of inflicting pain and the audience must just sit there and watch the tired formula play out. Ritchie knows that we have all seen this stuff before and decided to turn the conventions usually associated with such scenes on their head slightly which results in one of the most hysterically comical sequences in any movie this year and this has been a year unusually ripe with great spy/espionage movies, so that puts TMFU in particularly good company (by the time the latest James Bond adventure Spectre comes out it will have some seriously big shoes to fill).

The one thing that Ritchie really nailed though beyond the smart casting, hip directing style and the light comedic touches is just how darn fun the whole thing is. While the central storyline is about stopping a terrorist group from building a nuclear bomb and killing millions, you wouldn't know it by just how relaxed and easy going the film is from beginning to end. Even the opening scene where Solo must help Gaby get past the Berlin wall is full of exciting action and this overall sense of fun pervades over the entire film. Anyone worried about having no prior knowledge of the source material should rest easy as the film was made to entertain first and foremost and it succeeds at that unequivocally.

If there is any weaknesses that can be levied against the film it is that the combination of an inherent lack of star power and the fact that it is a period piece on top of being set in an era not really known for its action/comedy appeal might turn off its target audience before they ever give it a chance. While the execution is perfect most won't care when everything from the cars to the gadgets is antiquated. This of course just means that any fans the film may garner will likely come from the home video market where those who are more willing to drop a couple bucks and a couple hours in the comfort of their own home will discover its many charms.

It's a real shame most people will skip this one as it is one of the more thoroughly entertaining films released this summer. It's attributes are a double edged sword though and not every film gets its just due during its initial theatrical run and that looks to be most certainly the case with TMFU. The only real unfortunate side effect of it finding its audience later down the road is that we will likely never see the sequel this film so eloquently sets us up for. Perhaps it might still happen but I wouldn't get my hopes up. Ritchie is beginning to get a reputation for starting franchises and being unable to follow up on them.


If you like spy movies and aren't turned off by 60's era decor mixed with hip and flashy filmmaking then chances are TMFU is right up your alley. Don't let the lack of interest in it from general audiences deter you from seeing one of the more purely entertaining films of the year, even if you do end up waiting for it to hit the smaller screen.

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