Guy Ritchie is the Rembrandt of slick action capers. His signature twisty-turny plotting suggests a much more reined-in Shyamalan while his carefully syncopated, pop-art action beats share a locker with contemporaries Zack Snyder and Matthew Vaughn. From Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Ritchie has operated within a comparable sandbox, utilizing a very similar set of stock tools within shifting budgetary constraints. With The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie has set aside his signature accoutrements for something with an embarrassment of cinematic fervor. His latest creation is chic and classic, timely yet timeless, shiny on the surface with rich characters driving the engine underneath. This much fun is rare at the theaters.
Over the course of his career, Ritchie has traded in Cockney gangsters and morally gray tough guys for 19th century super-sleuths (and forget-me-not castaway dumps starring then-wife Madonna). In his 20th year as a filmmaker, he’s turned the page to super-spy gentlemen and the pairing is as dapper as the most elegant of paisley pocket squares. His shifting of gears is a preternatural match made in heaven as Ritchie’s stylized hyper-reality fits the super-spy bill perfectly. Again, U.N.C.L.E. is a blast.
Adapted from a 60’s NBC television program you hadn’t heard of until this movie was announced, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. makes no attempt to mask its dated material. Rather, Ritchie and Co. revel in its antiquity. From the film’s gaudy, splashy fashion sense (extending from its costumery to its classy cars to its decadent sets) and through its outmoded, though aggressively tongue-in-cheek, prose, U.N.C.L.E. is of a time and a place and both are squeezed to their very last drop of mood-setting ingenuity.
The exotic vistas pop off the page with the lurid colors of a comic book. The thing just screams style. Even the film’s ultra-masculine characters square off on stylistic advice regarding how a female character ought dress to impress the back story she’s supposed to fill. Their tapping into their more feminine-friendly personas makes for great humor and cunning modern century wit. In the age of Hollywood checking its back for the lurking of a Bechdel (a test that this film ultimately fails), U.N.C.L.E. still feels like the opposite of chauvinism.
Because the feature really thrives is in its characters, male and female both. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as dashing war-profiteer-turned-American-spy Napoleon Solo camps things up to unparalleled levels. He’s Roger Moore mashed with Han Solo; the living embodiment of sex and violence with a shit-eating grin and a don’t-take-things-seriously modus operandi. He swills booze with the best of them, lays vixens with barely the bat of an eye and handles the most dangerous of situations whilst sipping on an aged Chianti and some fine Gruyere. He’s basically Bond without the boundaries; Hunt with even more sneers; Powers with extra sex appeal.
On his arm, Armie Hammer turns in an equally dastardly performance as Russian brute/spy Illya Kuryakin. As Illya’s anger gets the better of him, he threatens to Hulk smash any pocket of people in his immediate vicinity and Hammer plays the tidal rages with self-aware gusto. He’s a total smash. Though he’s been dealt a bit of the Hollywood short end of the stick with a couple of thankless roles in critically-derided clunkers the likes of J. Edgar, Mirror Mirror and as the titular character in The Lone Ranger, Armie hammers home why he was once considered an up-and-comer. The man’s dripping with a uniquely captivating blend of mania and charm.
Speaking of up-and-comers, Alicia Vikander (who won great acclaim in this year’s excellent Ex Machina) is a slippery foil to the mega masculinity that is the film’s competing man power. She plays her spy games with tact and Ritchie has fun fiddling with her allegiances throughout; she’s hard to put a finger on (literally and metaphorically); her allusiveness contributing both to her intrigue and her fine characterization.
U.N.C.L.E.’s big bad is played by Elizabeth Debicki, who also thrives in the role. The subversion of the power-hungry husband and his Lady MacBeth wife is properly changed in for a 21st model. Though she doesn’t wield the torture tools herself, it’s nice to see a legitimately intimidating villain in heels; a femme fatale that’s smarter than her male cohorts and still looks killer in rouge.
Although the plot is ultimately secondary to the film’s rich stable of characters, that’s not to say that it’s not satisfying in and of itself. Instead of allowing the critic-friendly compete with audience-demanded action sequences, Ritchie delivers the best of both worlds; a little kiss. But whereas many other action-directors may jam their camera into the midst of the ‘splosions, Ritchie is happy skating past it, giving footnotes along the way and sitting back with his cunning characters to watch it unfold over a good bottle of wine.
CONCLUSION: Style may trump substance in Guy Ritchie’s latest effort but when the style is this decadent, the characters this effortlessly likable and the dialogue this deliciously smarmy, you’ll still find your pants utterly charmed off.