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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) review

November 18, 2015

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written by: Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram 
produced by: John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Lionel Wigram & Guy Ritchie
directed by: Guy Ritchie
rated: PG-13 (for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity)
runtime: 116 min.
U.S. release date: August 14, 2015
DVD/Blu-ray releae date: November 17, 2015

 

With the Cold War raging in full gear, the 1960’s in pop culture was the decade of the spy, of international intrigue, of espionage. From James Bond, Matt Helm, Harry Palmer and Derek Flint in films to Mission: Impossible and Man from U.N.C.L.E. on television, audiences ate up their spy stories as quickly as possible. Me? I love ’em all, great, good, bad and awful. Naturally I was curious then when I found out a movie was being made about one of those 60’s television series.

It’s 1963 in East Berlin and CIA agent (by blackmail) Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is working a suspect with ties to a brilliant scientist capable of building a nuclear bomb. The problem? There’s two. One, the scientist has been missing for years, and the suspect, his niece Gaby (Alicia Vikander), hasn’t seen him in just as many years. Two, a KGB agent, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), is also looking for the scientist, creating a bit of a rivalry. There’s an easy solution though that goes far above these agents’ heads…work together to get the job done. With Ilya posing as Gaby’s fiance and Napoloen as an antiquities dealer, the trio head to Italy to follow the evidence. What are they going to find? All sorts of glamorous, scandalous behavior with fanatics, lunatics and stashed away Nazis. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Running for four seasons in the mid-1960’s, the original “U.N.C.L.E.” starred Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll, capitalizing on the spy craze. I watched the first season and loved it (in all its black-and- white glory) but lost interest during season 2 as the tone got a little too spoofish for me. Still, the appeal of a franchise being created was pretty cool, and it took years to do and countless cast possibilities and what-ifs roaming around Hollywood. Well, it’s here and from director Guy Ritchie, it is a great summer movie that’s good for all the right reasons.

For starters, the biggest reason this reboot (of sorts) works so well is the style. My worry was that the series would be modernized for the film, two agents in 2015 working together toward a common goal. My worries were unfounded thankfully! Ritchie’s film is set at the height of the Cold War, the nuclear paranoia ravaging the world. On a purely visual, style-based rating, ‘UNCLE’ is a freaking gem. The look of the movie from the Italian locations is gorgeous, but it’s more than just the ridiculously colorful spy flick. It’s the clothes and fashions, the cars, the aura hanging in the air, the 1960’s gadgets, the little things that when assembled together end up bringing a movie up a notch or two. If you care NOTHING about the story, just sit back and appreciate the visual of one beautiful spy movie. Besides, you know the good guys are gonna win, right? Oh no, spoilers!

One of the cooler aspects of ‘UNCLE’ is the casting of Cavill and Hammer as our two rival agents. Both are up-and-coming stars who seem destined for bigger and better. We don’t go in with the mindset of knowing these stars as if Tom Cruise and George Clooney had been cast, and that’s a good thing. We get to know the characters a little bit. Cavill’s Solo is a WWII vet turned master thief turned captured agent blackmailed into working for the CIA. Hammer’s Ilya grew up in war-torn WWII Russia and watched his father be dragged away, setting something off in his young son. A brutally efficient agent, he is a physical specimen. It can be familiar at times, but the two rival agents getting to know each other angle works pretty well. And again, it doesn’t hurt that there is a fresh quality to the casting with two young actors.

 

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The reviews were kinda mixed about…well, a lot, but I really did like Cavill and Hammer. Cavill is so smooth and suave that he’s a little wooden in scenes, but he does a good variation on a James Bond-esque thief and pickpocket. Hammer is the straight guy but sells it throughout, committing to the KGB agent seemingly without emotions. Vikander is excellent as their go-between, an impromptu spy trying to keep the two agents from killing each other.

Hugh Grant and Jared Harris are brutally underused as two superior agents who are pulling all the strings. As for the villains, they’re okay but could have been stronger. Elizabeth Debicki is the most memorable as the fanatical Victoria, a stinking rich nut, with Luca Calvani and Sylvester Groth as her two closest allies. No huge names anywhere in sight, but that’s not an issue in the least.

 

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I liked the first hour here and loved the second as the characters and story really hit their groove. We finally get into things, and the action and style mixes seamlessly with the witty banter and impeccable filming locations. The action is especially stylish, including one highlight as Napoleon stumbles across a factory worker’s lunch while Ilya evades gunboats hunting him down. We see that action in reflections, in a mirror, and it’s silent all the way, Napoleon dead-pan eating a sandwich. A large-scale attack later on an Italian island villa is done in montage and it works in a way I wouldn’t have thought. Ritchie and Co. manage to strike quite a balance among all the moving pieces, blending that style, humor, cool characters and cooler action.

Also worth mentioning, the 1960’s French and Italian-themed score from Daniel Pemberton (“Steve Jobs”), a gem of a score. There are times the catchy score even resembles something out of a spaghetti western. That little touch of flair adds something fun and different to the proceedings. Great score though, liked it a lot. ‘UNCLE’ isn’t tearing up the box office unfortunately, as movie critics are pretty mixed while actual moviegoers seem to be enjoying it. The ending sets things up nicely for any future ventures (hopefully!) as you’d expect. Should there be a sequel, I hope we get a Vaughn and McCallum cameo at some point. Make it happen, Guy Ritchie! In the meantime, check this one out. It’s a lot of fun throughout.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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