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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Rich U.N.C.L.E.

If you’re an avid filmgoer, chances are you’ve already seen everything The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has to offer. The bickering, crime-solving partners; the fortresses; the gadgets; the cars—everything about Guy Ritchie’s big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV series screams “homage” to James Bond and the homages spawned by Bond. Even the climactic showdown involving battleships and nuclear warheads feels appropriated from X-Men: First Class, which was very comic-book-y, but also very Bond. I also don’t blame your arched-eyebrow skepticism at an end-of-summer release that follows on the heels of another spy-team blockbuster seeking to capitalize on small-screen nostalgia.

What sets this film apart is Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wilgram’s total commitment to creating an exhilarating spy comedy that doesn’t descend into camp. The filmmakers’ tone is an odd one, balancing precariously between traditional globe-trotting adventure films that have comedic elements (Mission: Impossible), and farces that also contain action (Austin Powers). On top of that, Ritchie douses his film in a sunny, pop-art pride that makes new everything he cribs. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is like 2006’s Casino Royale, as performed by the cast of His Girl Friday and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Henry Cavill stars as the improbably named Napoleon Solo, a suave master criminal who was blackmailed by the CIA into becoming its top spy. He teams up with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a super KGB agent and the son of a disgraced head of state. Together, they must help a German auto mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) rescue her estranged nuclear-physicist father, Udo (Christian Berkel), from a shadow organization bent on ruling the world.

This high-concept pitch doesn’t account for the film’s myriad sub-plots and mini-adventures—the relevance of which I rarely understood in the moment. There’s so much “business” in this film that it’s hard to keep track of which mustachioed Italian thug is a henchman and which is the racecar driving husband of villainess Victoria (the amazingly icy Elizabeth Debicki). The lavish galas, hotel rooms, and super-secret research facilities all run together as familiar spy-movie boxes to be ticked off. Fortunately, Ritchie and his cast zero in on the comedic possibilities of these setups, rather than bogging us down in exposition.

It helps that Cavill and Hammer bring Solo and Kuryakin to life as a kind of lethal Odd Couple. The debonair, arrogant American versus the stoic Russian with anger issues—it’s an archetypical pairing we’ve seen a dozen times, but never in such an enjoyably heightened way. Ritchie and Wilgram’s screenplay presents us with cartoon characters and then peels back the yuk-yuk surface layers to reveal the fascinating (often disturbing) pasts that led Solo and Kuryakin to construct and maintain these larger-than-life personalities. In one scene, upon realizing his drink has been poisoned, Solo uses his last moments of consciousness to place throw pillows on the floor and then lie down. “I’ve been here before,” he slurs, “and it wasn’t pretty.” Kuryakin develops a frantic twitch in his fingers whenever someone brings up his family; the accompanying Kill Bill-style alarms and close-up on his enraged eyes are a comic cue, but also an invitation to wonder just how messed up his childhood was.

For her part, Vikander makes the most of her spunky-damsel role. I really can’t talk about Gaby without straying into spoiler territory, but I will say my initial concerns about her Object of Rescue status fell by the wayside as the picture progressed. It was a bit disconcerting that the first half of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. appeared to have swiped its gender politics from the same era as its flashy title cards, but Gaby proves to be independent as a character and integral to the story in ways I didn’t see coming.

The real hero of the film is Ritchie’s bold and bizarre directing style. I haven’t been taken with his brand of kinetic directing since the low-rent, one-two-punch of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. His Sherlock Holmes films nobly but disastrously applied a comedic, whiz-bang aesthetic to a universe that didn’t need it—turning fiction’s greatest detective into Bugs Bunny. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sees him flexing all of his visual-gag muscles to their best effect, as if everything  that came before was mere sketching. From split-screen, multi-angle action montages to the So That’s How They Did It rewind, this film not only lends itself to meta-narrative trickery, it is reliant on a cellular level.

Two scenes, in particular, stand out. The first involves a boat chase, and finds one character almost literally stepping out of the film to enjoy a sandwich and some wine while the screenplay decides how he figures into the action; it’s as if Ritchie and Wilgram came to a creative impasse and decided the best way through was to fold their writer’s block into the story. The second scene sees Solo strapped into an electric chair with a drooling Nazi scientist sitting across from him. Ritchie smoothly breaks tone here to bring us a truly unsettling moment of horror, revealing more of those dimensions I mentioned earlier to the surface. For three minutes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. becomes Marathon Man, down to an abrupt shift in film stock that feels old, indie, and dangerous.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the impending death of movie theatres, with home and portable entertainment becoming as convenient as mainstream content is disposable. Home-video turnaround of empty CGI blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World has narrowed to only a few months from initial release, meaning there’s little reason to bother venturing out to the cinema for the next non-event event movie.

Lucky for us cinephiles, there are a handful of filmmakers toiling away in the big studios (and studios willing to let them toil) fighting for the big-screen experience. Summer 2015 has had its share of garbage, sure, but there are a handful of stand-outs whose production design and see-it-to-believe it practical stunts eschew the notion that watching them on your phone is a viable option. Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fits nicely in the pantheon with Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation as exciting, can’t-miss theatrical experiences that will leave you wanting more, and demanding more from movies.

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