A Weak Excuse To Talk About Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’
Spend enough time in the amorphous blob of sarcasm and theory that is Film Twitter and you’ll see which factions have taken form. It’s like the high school lunch table hierarchy, only way more pedantic and more invested in your opinions on David Lynch. There are the stalwart defenders of Jai Courtney, the ones who passive-aggressively tweet about how they’re not at any of the major film festivals (myself included), the awards prognosticators and the opposition to such practices, the avid haters of bad cinema etiquette, ones who aren’t straight white dudes, and much more.
The best bloc, however, without context, are the lifetime lovers of Guy Ritchie’s 2015 big-screen adaptation of the classic 1960s spy drama, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Upon its release, the movie, starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander, flopped pretty spectacularly, grossing a mere $109m from a $75m budget. Reviews were mixed to positive, but it just seemed as though few filmgoers were interested in putting their money down to watch a remake of an old TV show starring the guys from the flop remake of The Lone Ranger and the least interesting Superman. Perhaps it wasn’t a big enough IP for an international audience, or maybe Cavill’s star power holds no sway when DC aren’t involved. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t surprised that the film under-performed, but when I eventually saw the film that Summer, its disappointing numbers stung even more. That it has found new life as a favourite amongst film critics doesn’t seem to have uplifted Ritchie’s spirits, as this news brought him much confusion when informed of it during the press tour for his much less fun but still not half bad King Arthur movie (no seriously, it’s not that bad, I had a good time at it!)
Let’s be clear - The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a great blockbuster. It’s the kind of breezy big-budget lark we see so little of in the age of expanded universes and multi-film franchises that must adhere to the strictest of central narratives. Ritchie, who experienced an unlikely career resurgence through his twist on the Sherlock Holmes story, seems unconcerned with sticking to the structural and stylistic rules of current Summer movie fare. This is a proudly old-school movie imbued with Ritchie’s slick vibrancy. Centred on CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, the unlikely duo are forced to work together alongside a German mechanic to stop an icy Italian socialite from potential world destruction, but the plot is almost unimportant. Don’t let those details get in the way of you having a marvellous time.
Want to know how good The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is? It makes Henry freaking Cavill charismatic. The dullest Superman to ever done the cape, the one who looks like he wouldn’t know joy if it yanked him by the pants, is front and centre here, charming and magnetic and having the time of his life. There isn’t a moment in this film where Cavill doesn’t look like the cat who got the cream, and it’s reviving to the spirit to watch unfold. He’s so charismatic, you can’t help but wonder if he made some sort of cursed monkey’s paw deal with Zack Snyder to land the Superman gig on the condition he have his charm sucked out of him by a Dementor. He strides through each scene, clad in only the finest apparel, with the knowing smirk of a man who knows exactly what kind of hero he is. It’s a familiar trope but with so many blockbusters these days utterly determined to starve themselves of joy, it’s oddly refreshing to see a film where the hero actually likes being a hero.
I’ve written a lot about Hammer this week already, so check out that post for further thoughts, but he’s also wonderful in a more stoic role. His best scenes are easily his ones with Vikander, as their chemistry steams off the screen. The glorious scene where she drunkenly dances in the background while he futilely tries to focus on his chess game is one for the ages. Both Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki get substantial roles where they’re involved in the action and driving the plot, something that shouldn’t be as rare as it is in these days of ceaseless blockbusters. Like everyone else in the cast, they’re also having an amazing time.
I’ve heard the criticism from some that the film is nothing but style, and my response to that is: Yes? And?
This is a GQ photo-shoot come to life. Every character is dressed with the most covetable of looks. Vikander and Debicki’s wardrobes alone are the stuff of dreams. At its heart, this is a film about good looking people saving the world and looking even better while doing it, which can be exhausting but when it’s executed with such panache and unabashed delight, why complain? The style is the substance here. Ritchie knows what he’s doing: The camera moves with such fluidity through each scene, the action set-pieces are dynamic and crisply put together, and the geometric split-screen and wipe effects are a charming throwback to the ’60s atmosphere. Sure, there’s not much weight to the plot or the stakes - it’s as light as champagne bubbles - but frankly, it’s about time we had more movies where two handsome men bicker over whether a woman’s belt should match her dress. Any movie with a jazz flute dominated score is not one lacking in self-awareness.
Not everything about the film works - it’s a depressingly white affair and one moment involving an old Nazi doctor doesn’t pack the potency it should, especially when it’s followed up with a slapstick gag - yet when I find myself in need of a good pick-me-up, it’s always The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I turn to. I like fun. I like good looking people in clothes to die for, and I like watching people enjoy themselves, unburdened by the portentous weight of faux-nobility. We deserve nice things, and there’s nothing nicer than Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer straddling a moped as they fight crime. The chances of us getting a sequel are slim, so let’s appreciate the good stuff when we have it.
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