‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ succeeds, fails in equal measure
I was hoping for one last triumphant popcorn flick on the way out of summer. At first, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” seems to fit the bill. Based loosely on the 1960s TV show, it opens with enough style and energy to jump off the screen. I can’t count the number of times the planet’s been threatened this summer, and a playful riff on 60s spy movies should feel as light and airy as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” starts.
CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are both after the same quarry: a defecting East German car mechanic who’s also the daughter of a missing, ex-Nazi rocket scientist. The opening is everything you think the movie could possibly be. It zips along with a unique flair, cutting back and forth in time so you can understand each operative a little better. It works like jazz, its rhythm alternating between tight and loose in a call-and-response way. It’s a beautifully orchestrated opening sequence.
If you want more of that quirky, high-energy, stylish action then “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is where you’re going to find it ... once in a while. The film never goes straight downhill, but it does run up and down that hill faster than you can keep up. Brilliant comedic moments are interspersed with banter scenes that fall flat. The passive-aggressive competition between Solo and Kuryakin is realized wonderfully during a heist sequence but never revisited again. The daughter who joins them on their mission, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), has to mediate their competitive nature, which takes her into serious territory. With three comedic straight-men and no foil, it’s up to the film itself to invent comedic interplay. When it’s there, it sings, but when it’s not, it’s like the jazz goes horrendously off-tune and you wonder if the trombonist just had a heart attack.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” has style to spare, a clever way of editing, a sharp sense of humor, energetic action, and three leads each more talented and charming than the last, but it doesn’t rely on any of these things long enough to create a consistent theme.
Is the point of the movie to be stylish? It forgets to be for long stretches of time. Is it to cleverly edit story in nonlinear ways that keep us hopping back and forth between expectations and reveals? The same energy isn’t put into its linear scenes; they fall flat by comparison.
Is the point of the film its wicked humor? Then why do we get a torture scene near the end where the torturer proceeds to tell us how he experimented on concentration camp prisoners? That’s a mood-killer in a comedy if ever there was one.
Why is each character introduced as a scenery-chewing joy only to devolve into a dour monument to solemnity by the end?
Why is the action joyfully cartoonish at the beginning and self-consciously gritty by the end? Did a producer pass by and think, “Yes, this bright, cartoonish 60s romp needs more ‘Dark Knight’ in it?”
If nothing else, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” reminds you of the value of Robert Downey Jr. Downey starred in both of director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies. They shared similar tonal shifts, although the mysteries at their core were far tighter. Both “Holmes” movies shared the same grinding halts to deliver bland expository dialogue in between frenetic action scenes. The difference between Downey, Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace seizing on each others’ Victorian lines versus Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander never finding their rhythm together in the 60s is night and day.
That’s a lot of flaws for something I ultimately did enjoy, and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” also suffers from arriving on the heels of the surprisingly better, funnier, and even more stylish “Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation.” As spy movies go, there’s an all-time great in the theater right now and then there’s a pretty good one in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is as enjoyable as anything this year when its comedy and style hit. You just have to bear with the moments when it takes far too long to find its mark. These are all enjoyable actors to watch, even when they’re all playing dry wit at the same time. If you’re looking for a spy movie or action comedy, “Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation” is the far better bet, and more specifically takes advantage of the big screen. If you’ve already seen that or you just don’t like Tom Cruise, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a solid bet if you’re patient with it. It does boast some of the best music of any film this year.
Two stars out of four. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is rated PG-13 for violence and suggestive content.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at email@example.com.
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