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The Case For ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ as One of the Best Action Films of the 2010s

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 29, 2019 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 29, 2019 |

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There are films I thought were better in the 2010s, ones with greater artistic merit that achieved more on a purely creative level. However, there was no single movie of the past decade that I wholeheartedly enjoyed on a sheer visceral level as much as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s easily the film I’ve re-watched the most in the four years since its release, and the one I turn to when I need pure cinematic comfort. I doubt I’ve spent more time on Twitter defending or declaring my unfiltered fangirl glee for a film that wasn’t this one. I could wax lyrical about the outstanding auteur victories of the decade, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Marielle Heller and Park Chan-wook, but truthfully, my heart right out, for better or worse, belongs to Guy f*cking Ritchie.

Blockbusters dominated the 2010s in a way that can be easy to downplay or dismiss as just another trend. We saw the decline of the A-List model of Hollywood celebrity in favor of prizing big-name intellectual properties as box office guarantees. As Marvel near single-handedly dominated the industry in record-breaking ways that have redefined the genre as a whole, other studios quickly scrambled to find whatever familiar content they had in their vaults or back-catalogs in the mostly futile hopes of replicating that lightning-in-a-bottle moment. The lion’s share of these attempts failed because they greatly overestimated how much general audiences cared for those properties or exaggerated their perceived nostalgic force. We saw this most recently with the Charlie’s Angels reboot but the past few years also gifted us with costly failures like The Mummy, Robin Hood, and Ritchie’s attempt to reboot King Arthur as a multi-movie expanded universe. Alas, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was another big disappointment from this boom-and-bust, grossing only $109.8 million from a reported budget of $75 - 84 million. Critics generally liked the movie, but those who loved it were immediately committed to it, myself included. Now, getting excited about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on Film Twitter is a social media staple for some.

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I have spent a lot of time on this beautiful site writing about my love for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and my all-too-frequent defenses of Guy Ritchie, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much in describing why the film is so wonderful. Let’s start from the beginning. Many have criticized the film for allegedly being too much ‘style over substance’, with Ritchie seemingly more concerned about the slick aesthetic of the film than plot or character. That’s flagrantly not true but that point also overlooks how crucial style is at every turn to tell this specific story. This is not the 1960s: This is the 1960s as imagined by the pop culture of the time, from Ian Fleming to Playboy Magazine (without all the misogyny) to, of course, the original T.V. series. It’s a world where everyone is impeccably styled and the wind blows just so to allow for a perfect shot for this imagined GQ photospread. Everything is pristine and near fantastically flawless, a world where looking good is half the battle. Remember, this is a story featuring two men arguing over whether a woman’s skirt should match her belt, an issue the woman in question has little concern for herself. These men are peacocks in the best way possible.

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After the DCEU portrayed him as an absolute charisma vacuum, Henry Cavill gets to be a full-on old school movie hero throwback of endless charm in the form of Napoleon Solo. He’s never been cooler or more interesting to watch on-screen, wholly embodying the retro dapper appeal of that era, real or imagined. Armie Hammer, at the time stuck as the pretty leading man in waiting, nails the pompous stoicism of Illya Kuryakin, while Alicia Vikander and Elisabeth Debicki revel in being the kinds of action heroines we see far too little of these days. This is an ensemble working in unison with chemistry to spare for days.

Ritchie’s directorial style has been frequently derided or parodied over the years. His debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels established his Cockney bloke persona and the rag-tag slick-moving cinematic aesthetic to accompany it. At its best, it can be endlessly dynamic and immersive, rooted in the unreal but never distancing itself from the tangibly thrilling. At worst, it’s flat and sort of exhausting. While I could also make a case for Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (another 2010s action film I spend WAY too much time thinking about), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is Ritchie at his absolute peak, blending elements from his earlier, grimier work with the lustrous sheen of Hollywood, past, and future. In an age of shaky-cam and wall-to-wall CGI, there’s something substantial and visually stunning about Ritchie in his prime that feels unbeatable in the action movie genre.

I would be remiss in talking about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. if I did not mention how much of the film’s post-release fandom has been the result of support from women. I’m not sure if Ritchie gets how much his back-catalog and favored tropes greatly appeal to female viewers, but U.N.C.L.E. puts those elements front and center almost proudly. Come on, how could women not love this film? It’s endlessly pretty, full of banter, it doesn’t treat the female characters like sexy lamps yet giddily objectifies its heroes, and its pampered version of masculinity is never deified as a mega-manly ideal. The film is also sexy as all hell, another benefit of its style-oriented approach. Pedro Almodóvar said his big problem with Marvel movies was their lack of sex, but rest assured: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fucks.

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I doubt the movie will ever be remembered as one of the decade’s best action films, especially when the competition is so damn high, but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. deserves its small place in history. Audiences are slowly but surely finding their way to the film thanks to social media popularity and its endless rewatchability. Sure, it wasn’t a film anyone was asking for at the time but it’s one we eagerly needed once we realized just how bloody good it was. If only we could get that sequel…

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This piece is part of Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010s series.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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