The Man from UNCLE (2015, directed by Guy Ritchie) finds Hollywood trying to breathe life into another pre-sold "franchise," preferably one that it doesn't have to do any heavy lifting to reanimate. God forbid anyone have to pay writers and directors to create something new and untested. The marketing department would shit bricks. I think Warner Brothers may have over-extended themselves on this one, reaching back too far into the past, well beyond the nostalgic memories of their core audience. Who under forty remembers The Man from UNCLE? It's not as if TV reruns are even a thing anymore to put it in front of a potential audience. This is the trap that the Mission: Impossible films avoided by getting things started twenty years ago, when its own source material was still in the cultural memory, and by making its own brand out of it with Tom Cruise's face. The new Man From UNCLE film doesn't have the benefit of a branded movie star, either. I feel bad for Armie Hammer, who has been at the epicenter of two flailing attempts to capitalize on the fading memory of old cultural white noise. He's like a guy who keeps getting struck by lightning. The movie itself? Well, a movie can stand or fall on its own, and if it's good, maybe it will work. In truth, the new version of The Man From UNCLE isn't bad, per se, though it's not particularly good, either.
The story finds super-thief turned spy Napoleon Solo tasked with rescuing Gaby Teller, the daughter of a nuclear scientist from East Berlin at the height of The Cold War. The Russians make Solo and dispatch their best man, Illya Kuryakin, to dispatch him. Solo leads Kuryakin on a merry chase through the streets of the city on his way to the Berlin Wall, and despite his best efforts, he fails to shake the Russian until the very last moments. The next day, Solo is handed a new assignment, one that follows on his work the previous night. Gaby Teller's father is in Italy, working for a crime syndicate built from the remnants of Nazis and Italian fascists to build a new way to mass produce atomic bombs. Solo's controller introduces him to his new partner in the venture. Kuryakin. The very man he escaped the night before. Neither agent is happy with the arrangement. Waiting for them in Italy are Gaby's uncle, Rudi, an unreconstructed Nazi who has fallen in with evil power couple, Count and Victoria Vinciguerra, who are masterminding the rise of a second Reich. Solo and Kuryakin soon find themselves betrayed by Gaby, who has an agenda of her own, and the race is on to recover a nuclear warhead that the Vinciguerra's have already assembled...
The main problem with The Man From UNCLE is that it's best actor isn't playing either Solo or Kuryakin. It's Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller, who in another universe would be headlining a revival of The Girl from UNCLE. She's the natural lead character. Vikander is this year's version of Jessica Chastain, an "it-girl" with significant films littering the entire year and there's a reason for that. She's good, even here. Beside her, Henry Cavill's Solo and Armie Hammer's Kuryakin look like fashion plates. Clearly, they can both wear a suit and wear it well--my heavens, does Cavill cut a fine figure in a suit. The film places an emphasis on period fashions for all of its characters, and, indeed, features a couple of scenes that explicitly take them shopping for clothes. This extends to the villains, too, particularly Elizabeth Debicki's Victoria Vinciguerra, who looks a bit like some demonic Bond-villain version of Twiggy.
The film is at its best when it's engaging in banter between its stars, and the contrast between Solo and Kuryakin--one suave and cosmopolitan, the other parochial and menacing--makes for the film's best scenes, particularly when they're trying to one-up each other. Vikander plays equally well off either Hammer or Cavill, though it's telling that the film pairs her with the more sexually conservative Kuryakin, while it's Victoria who goes for Solo. There's some coding of sexual virtue in these pairings that sets off an alarm in my head, but it's only a minor one. Unfortunately, this film is beholden to the contemporary appetite for bigger and bigger action sequences, and when these are on screen, I mostly checked out. Guy Ritchie is a firm adherent to the run and gun "chaos" school of action filmmaking, and in this film, he's pushed his scenes into a visual incoherence that's so headache-inducing that you'd be better off staring at a blank wall for their duration. These scenes abandon the film's carefully cultivated veneer of style, even when they're indulging in tricky split-screen effects. They're downright ugly, and they take the film down with them. Fortunately, Hugh Grant shows up late in the film and rescues it with his considerable charm. One thing this movie could use more of is Hugh Grant. He's a more stylish and charismatic spymaster than ever Leo G. Carroll was, and has an effortless grace that eludes the film's two ostensible stars.
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