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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

July 7, 2020

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Actors: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review | Den of Geek

Synopsis: Top US spy, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), teams up with his KGB rival, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to prevent a murky criminal organisation from gaining access to a nuclear bomb.

Review: In a career that has veered dramatically in such a comparatively short period of time from the acclaim and adulation that came with his first two films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, to the lows and critical derision that immediately followed with Swept Away and Revolver, it’s fair to say that Guy Ritchie’s latest directorial effort, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is unquestionably his least controversial film to date. Coming very much in the line of Ritchie’s recent, confidently handled Hollywoodisation of the Sherlock Holmes brand in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, it’s clear Ritchie is repositioning himself as a more reliable genre director, with just a minor imprint of the tricksy signature from his first handful of films.

Ritchie’s new style makes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. thoroughly competent and inoffensive, but also just a touch anomalous. Mirroring the ambience of his suave lead character, Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo, Ritchie’s direction is so laid back – especially for a thriller – that it drains the piece of any real tension or dread. Of course, that’s partly the point as this is obviously a pastiche of those ’60s crime capers, of which the same-titled television show on which this is based was just one example. Therefore, Ritchie isn’t on entirely unfamiliar ground and doesn’t need a second invite to indulge in the cool retro stylistics that the subject matter allows. He really goes to town on the costumes, the vintage period design, while also approximating the panavision and deep focus tropes of the movie-making of that era.

The slightly problematic lack of tension is arguably most apparent in the main performances. Henry Cavill affects that preppy drawl British actors often use when playing Americans (Christian Bale in American Psycho and Hugh Laurie in the television series House are two such cases), but where Cavill is trying to play cool and assured, it just comes across as mannered and slightly flat. I wonder whether Ritchie might have been better served swapping his two lead men around, and having Armie Hammer play the suave American, and let Cavill’s implacable stiffness characterise the stern KGB agent?

Still, Ritchie does handle the light culture comedy at the heart of the scenario nicely enough. The film’s opening cleverly employs a frenetic action sequence to introduce us to the three main characters and their special talents and quirks; most films would opt for more stolid exposition. There are also some droll sight gags such as when Solo cracks into some bread and wine while Kuryakin’s frenetic boat chase takes place in the background, and when both men debate what to do with the scientist they’ve just tied to an electric chair, failing to realise that the chair is in fact working and that the scientist is already dead and up in flames just behind their turned backs.

One can see why there wasn’t enough ‘je ne sais quoi’ here to justify the extending of this world into a sequel – although the film did make a small box office profit – but as evidence of Ritchie’s new position as one of the better genre directors around, it’s a diverting confection and worth a visit. (July 2020)

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