THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (UK CERT: 12A)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
REVIEW AUTHOR: Rob Stoakes
Themes and analogy have never been that far away from blockbuster films, even if you don’t think that they have, and this year has been a prime indicator for that. Kingsman was on the surface a Bond parody and homage, but had strong themes of class warfare. It Follows seems to follow the old horror tradition of monsters murdering sexually active teenagers, but the monster can also be seen to represent STIs, maturity and death. The film doesn’t even need to be particularly complex; Mad Max: Fury Road is essentially a feminist outline of the dangers of worshiping hyper-masculinity and one of the most unflinching looks at people as property in recent cinema history.
So what’s on Guy Ritchie’s mind? If The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is any indicator, it would be opposites. When you notice the theme, it suddenly becomes inescapable. There’s obvious stuff, like how the capitalist U.S.A and communist U.S.S.R are working together and how everyone in the film seems to not be at all bothered about the threat of a nuclear holocaust, but it goes deeper than that.
The supposed main character is Napoleon Solo, robber and CIA operative, but we hardly ever follow him, he has no arc to speak of and he doesn’t even get a love interest. Plus, we’re repeatedly told that he’s an amazing conman but absolutely no one in the film falls for any of his schemes. The true main character is Illya, on the surface and in everyone’s opinion (even his own) a completely stoic emotional blank, but a man with all the emotional stakes in the film and also prone to frequent psychotic episodes.
Most of the film’s best humour comes from these opposites as well, a particular highlight being Solo and Illya calmly discussing the morality of letting a German torture scientist live and potentially be employed by one of their sides, all while said scientist burns to death while they’re completely unaware. All of this makes for a film that is both funny and clever but seeming effortless, something that Guy Ritchie deserves more praise for achieving.
This theme of opposites allows a lot of the leaps in logic of the film to not be questioned and also helps to compensate for a plot that, if you’ve ever seen a 50’s spy thriller in your life, you’ll instantly know all the various twists and turns of before the opening credits are over.
I don’t know if I’d call Guy Ritchie a truly great director, but I’ll fight anyone who would call him an un-stylish one. He has always infused his films with a unique aesthetic from film to film, recognisably his own yet distinct from one another, and A Man From U.N.C.L.E. might be his most stylish yet. The plot, characters and especially the cinematography takes a lot from the old classic spy TV series The Avengers, which is fitting given the source material.
The dialogue, too, is very much like an old British spy comedy, and most of the actors manage to bring that old charm with some great performances. I hope that Henry Cavill doesn’t have his career defined by his lifeless Superman in Man of Steel because he sings his lines as Solo and steals the show. And it isn’t easy for him to do so, with Armie Hammer’s hilarious Illya and Elizabeth Debicki mixing spite and cool as the wicked Victoria. The only weak performance is Alicia Vikander as Gabby, who looks for the most part completely lost, though I wonder if that’s the fault of Vikander or a script that gives her nothing interesting to say.
Back onto the theme of opposites, it seems that by adapting someone else’s prior work, Guy Ritchie has created a film that sums up his work better than any other; wryly funny, very breezy in tone regardless of stakes and piling on the style without entirely forgetting the substance. Snatch is still his best film, but A Man From U.N.C.L.E. is probably the most Guy Ritchie-est film ever.
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