THE MAN FROM UNCLE REVIEW
CIA / KGB SHARED FACTFILE:
MAN FROM UNCLE
Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant
Genre: Spy Thriller /Action-Adventure
Certificate: PG13 /12 A
Warner Bros / 116 minutes
Story: CIA agent Napoleon (Cavill) must team with his KGB rival, Ilya (Hammer) to foil a Nazi conspiracy for nuclear supremacy.
There is a scene that falls about ¾ way through MAN FROM UNCLE. It summarises everything wrong with the film. One of our two heroes (Napoleon Solo, played by Henry Cavill) is tortured by a Nazi war criminal. This is not explicitly pornographic violence (if you want that, watch a Rhianna pop video). But there is a blink and you’ll miss it catalogue on a table of the villain’s favourite torture scenes, with direct reference to the death camps of the Holocaust.
Compare the scene I’ve just described to two other action-adventure icons: JAMES BOND and INDIANA JONES. Bond is of course tortured and frequently so, in the most outlandish ways. But even at its most brutal and dark, Bond’s trials are somehow part of a bigger picture of FUN and wit and original style. Then see Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. Nasty Nazis do feature and they ARE menacing. But notice they do not speak explicitly of the real-world Nazi atrocities. Because they don’t need to.
Magic. Mystery. Menace. James Bond and Indiana Jones movies model those story-telling assets. MAN FROM UNCLE does not. You feel its lack of inspiration, verve and genuine style all the more painfully because it seems to THINK that it has those qualities in abundance. Like so many products today, it ASSUMES your affection and approbation, rather than earning it.
The movie runs out of what are already borrowed tricks (spy thriller, sartorial style, period piece, comedy mixed with a still ‘serious’ adventure) mastered far better by older, superior franchises. It therefore whinges its way towards explicit nastiness (hence Nazi torturer showing off his concentration camp record).
It just doesn’t work. And one is taken out of the movie into a kind of meta-textual meditation on WHY the film seems to be failing. What is WRONG with it? This SHOULD be excellent. Guy Ritchie’s visual style, kinetic editing and sense of boys-own fun should pervade the product. He has form: SNATCH; SHERLOCK HOLMES. Sadly, this is just the wrong platform for his considerable talent.
It’s an ironic shame as this should by rights be like a ‘bespoke’ suit (the kind that Ritchie’s mate, Matthew Vaughan has the KINGSMEN lecture us about in that other spy movie from earlier this year). This SHOULD be a Ritchie blast of sunshine on an already fertile ground of ready-made nostalgia.
All the pieces are in place for a great action adventure film here but they are arranged in the wrong order entirely. No pace. No verve. No purpose. In a way of course, that’s a matter of fate. This project was cursed: passed between Hollywood personnel repeatedly. Tom Cruise, George Clooney and a range of high profile names have at some stage been ‘in talks’, ‘in the running’, ‘ready for’ ‘possibly signing on’ and so on.
The source material does not help. Ian ‘James Bond’ Fleming did consult on the creation of the original Man from UNCLE television show back in the 1960s. The name ‘Napoleon Solo’ is one of his suggestions. But, aside from a catchy name of both title and hero: what REALLY was the appeal of the show? Frankly, it was James Bond on a budget. With more frequent episodes. And comedic spins on the spy staples (so, the shadowy villains’ group is called THRUSH). Take those away though and there’s little, if anything, that can be commuted to the big screen.
One could argue that nostalgia value perhaps propelled the project this far. But in the years of development, at least one generation has grown up. And with exceptions that prove rules, said new ‘grown-ups’ have come to accept and even idolise the loser. Stories of ‘heroism’ now seem reserved for very special occasions, with masculinity and original style or voice something of nostalgia value in themselves: dying or dead qualities from a bygone era, possessed only by an elite few today.
Today’s ‘nostalgia’ is far more likely to be for some cartoon product of the 1980s or even the 90s. So quite how anyone thought people would get enthused about a spy spoof show from the 1960s is something of a mystery.
You might say: ‘But MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION did well this summer: why not MAN FROM UNCLE?’ Fair point. Well: The former had an actual iconography from a television series (the self-destructing mission statements; the theme tune; the masks); its own cinematic genre established within the last twenty years, a proven star in the lead (Mr. Cruise: hello again) and excellent execution and editing. MAN FROM UNCLE, alas, by contrast, lacks those assets. Consequently, it is less exciting and less enjoyable and therefore likely to under-perform at the Box Office.
Now, it’s not a total failure by any means. The production design, lighting, fight choreography, credit sequences, costumes, sound effects, locations and stylish colour filtering are all excellent. Modern technology meets 1960s cinematic aesthetic. The sheer scale and management are up here on the screen: a fest for the eyes. A tribute to the team involved, notably 007 veteran, Terry Bamber.
Hugh Grant’s cameo is hilarious and charming and makes you wish they’d just made a movie about him as the super-spy. Armie Hammer is a force of nature in fight scenes and it’s a shame he’s yet to find the right outlet to showcase his skills to the max.
Henry Cavill continues his race towards leading man status. Frankly, he’s NOT quite there yet (lacks distinction in movement or voice) but you do find yourself wanting him to win and can see yet again the sheer amount of devoted work the man invests in his training. So it can only be a matter of time before Henry comes into his own (possibly after BATMAN V SUPERMAN?).
There are some fun moments; a few laughs and some well executed action. But on the whole the film is slow, lacking tension and offering nothing new either as a genuine Cold War thriller or as a pastiche /spoof that subverts a genre.
It’s like being given one of those ‘Greatest Hits of the Crooners’ style CDs for an Office Christmas party about ten years ago. The hosts are saying ‘Look! We’ve got REAL style! THIS is how you throw a party /mix a Martini’ etc. One is also reminded of that advert for Galaxy chocolate, where they take footage from ROMAN HOLIDAY yet use the soundtrack from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. A presumption of old school style that just comes off as a failed cultural hustle and generates a feeling of ‘meh’ in the average viewer.
It’s typical of the media zeitgeist du jour, too and especially the Guy Ritchie and celebrity pal axis that want to be both Geezer-Guv’nor-cheeky chap AND Lord of the Manor /Squire. That’s fine when it gives rise to kinetic, stylish, innovative entertainment (SHERLOCK HOLMES) but its limitations as a worldview intrude onto the enjoyment of the MAN FROM UNCLE like a meta-textual poke in the eye.
What’s the lesson here? A copy of a copy never works, especially when its identity, production history, purpose and execution are slightly muddled. You won’t hate this movie. But don’t expect to be enthralled.
Unremarkable. Undistinguished. An extended Cornetto advert that wants to be a Tarantino Bond movie. Works hard. Looks nice. But lacks a certain something and is thereby flawed by awkward execution. GRADE C+: MISSABLE IN ACTION.