Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Two Men Looking For U.N.C.L.E.

Another day, another film that's the origin story of an old franchise rebooted for a new generation. But unlike Fantastic Four, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an action film that instead of footling around with the laborious construction of a Macguffin delivers what's expected of it from the outset. In Cold War Berlin (Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech is on the TV, so it's 1963), CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) duel over East German car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a missing atomic scientist (Udo, not the actual atomic scientist Edward). But when their bosses realise that Gaby's father is building a nuclear weapon for a gang of fascists, Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together, helping Gaby to find her father and infiltrate the fascist organisation.

The story is a nod to the central trope of the TV series, where innocents routinely became entangled with Solo and Kuryakin's espionage underworld. The odd-couple pairing between suave former art thief Solo, and Kuryakin, a by-the-rule-book strongman with severe anger management issues, is enlivened Gaby's presence - from the outset it's made clear that she has her own particular skill-set, and she gets the best of Kuryakin in their flirtatious exchanges. Elizabeth Debicki is a fine villain, by turns smouldering and icy, the mostly Italian settings burst with sumptuous colour, the costumes are achingly stylish, the soundtrack is punchy, and Guy Ritchie directs the action setpieces with the style he honed on his two Sherlock Holmes films. It's very much an homage to period action films rather than a knowing pastiche.

It's unfortunate, then, that the chemistry between the two male leads doesn't quite gel. Exchanges meant to be snappy too often fall flat; Cavill's Solo is a little too ponderous (and his American drawl is startlingly similar to Christian Bale's in American Psycho - I kept expecting him to break into a short disquisition about the merits of Burt Bacharach). Hugh Grant, as a deceptively bumbling British spy chief, gets the better of both of male leads; Alicia Vikander's nimble and witty turn as Gaby outclasses them all. And because the film concentrates on how Solo and Kuryakin met and why U.N.C.L.E. was set up, the actual plot, with its chases and confrontations with playboy villains, ex-Nazis, double agents and atomic weaponry, is somewhat exiguous and implausible. It's understandable, I guess, that the setup of a fifty-year-old TV series needs to be explained to its young core audience (the film also gives a quick, clever reprise of the basics of the Cold War in its opening credits, and later illustrates the essentials of the Second World War - Adolph Hitler had a hand in it, apparently), but it's something that the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. neither bothered with nor needed. An entertaining caper, lovely to look at, but one that left me wishing that it had spent more time on plot than setup, and found a better balance of substance and style.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts