As a literal child of the 60s, I am barely old enough to remember the television series The Man from UNCLE, yet another show centred on Cold-War America’s fascination with the spy world. While Bond, Flint and Helm were doing their thing in theatres, The Men were joined by the likes of The Saint, I Spy, The Persuaders and Get Smart.
Unfortunately, whereas I can quote lines from Get Smart (don’t judge me) and have fond memories of The Saint, things are a little foggier when it comes to The Man from UNCLE. Thus, when I took in the newly released movie, my mind was open.
Essentially, an origin story for the UNCLE organization—United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—the movie introduces us to the two men on which the series hinged, American spy Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, and how they are forced to work as a team despite their complete distrust both of each other and of their own governments.
I won’t go into great detail about the plot as it really doesn’t matter—much as the plot of a typical Bond flick doesn’t matter. The only reason for the central plot conflict is to force these two guys together and watch them play “whose dick is bigger.” Really. I mean it.
Over a two hour span, I think there was maybe 30 minutes of actual story. The rest of the time was spent in a great variety of chase scenes, some of which were quite funny, or watching Solo (Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) argue over fashion, spy gadgets and how badly the Soviet needs to get laid.
All of the friends who saw this movie with me had issues with this. The story wasn’t particularly engrossing and they felt like director Guy Ritchie had simply provided a light dessert; enjoyable in the moment, but offering little satisfaction.
To some extent, I agree with them. I am a fan of Ritchie’s earlier efforts with the Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law). Here, the stories were quite rich and complicated, as one would hope with a Sherlock Holmes tale. Using this barometer, The Man from UNCLE definitely failed.
But to some extent, I think my friends missed the point (but then, I would). I don’t think Ritchie was going so much for a story that you might find in the most recent Bond films, filled with character complexities and inner conflicts, longer story arcs, generous back story.
Rather, I think Ritchie was going for the vibe and energy of that earlier generation of spy films, which were more a vehicle for the star than anything and featured much shallower stories. To me, this film was more about Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, and if only for the humoured banter, Roger Moore’s James Bond.
Ritchie is trying to capture a time and place, or perhaps more specifically, a style. And if we have learned anything about Guy Ritchie, in a battle between style and substance, he will always go with style. In some ways, I see him more as a painter than a director, as his primary goal seems to be a luxurious visual. Dialogue is simply a necessary evil for him.
Although, this is not to say that the dialogue was a burden here. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is palpable, much as it was between Downey Jr. and Law. And the addition of Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby simply enriches that dance.
Unfortunately, Ritchie may have overestimated the power of his painter’s brush in this film if my friends and the 2/3-filled Friday night opener was any indication of how this movie is being received. This film was obviously set up to be a franchise, but as we have seen in the past, that decision doesn’t rest with the studios as much as with the audience (aka box office).
I’m hoping the movie does financially better than it looked. I’d like to see more of these movies. May have to live with reruns of the original series, instead.
Other reviews of The Man from UNCLE:
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. about more than just the cool clothes: review – Peter Howell, The Toronto Star
Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Danny F Santos