July 7, 2016

The Man From UNCLE (2015)

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is on the hunt for a missing East German nuclear physicist. His hunt takes him straight to that physicist's daughter, car mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander), and across the path of rival KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Together these unwilling allies must work together to stop a criminal organisation from assembling a nuclear warhead.

Film adaptations of TV shows are pretty much like remakes: Hollywood studios adore them because they give each film a leg-up in terms of marketing and branding. Audiences know and remember Mission: Impossible or Star Trek, and are happy to go and see the film adaptation due to their affection or nostalgia for the original property. Some times studios get it really wrong: I have no idea of the size of the market for a Car 54, Where Are You? movie, but I am going to take a guess than the market was relatively modest (worldwide gross: US$1.2m).

The Man from UNCLE honestly feels like it belongs somewhere in the middle. Do audiences remember it fondly? Sure. Is that a huge audience? The last regular episode aired in 1968, and while there were a few subsequent TV movies I think transforming the series into a fresh motion picture was a bit of a gamble on Warner Bros' part.

Guy Ritchie handles the directing reins on this 1960s spy caper, and he does a remarkably good job of it. The influence of his earlier Sherlock Holmes films are clear, but by working in a different period (the 1960s instead of the 1890s) he gets a whole new wardrobe, musical style and visual aesthetic with which to play around. There is style in excess on display, and a frantic editing pace that keeps the film highly energised throughout.

The film's main cast reaches near-Highlander levels of casting actors outside of their own accents. English actor Henry Cavill plays the suave American agent Napeleon Solo very well. He is wonderfully smug and confident. American Armie Hammer plays the tightly controlled Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin. I have always felt Hammer was a major movie star waiting for his big break. He failed to get one in Disney's The Lone Ranger and due to weak box office he fails to get one here. He is tremendously appealing, and to my mind the best performer in the whole film. To play German mechanic Gaby the production went for Swedish actor Alicia Vikander. She has an outstanding screen presence and a very relaxed performance style. I am not surprised she has become such a popular actor in Hollywood. She and Hammer in particular make for a great on-screen double act.

The film's plot is, it must be said, a little flabby and weak, particularly when it comes to the film's third act. It feels as if the writers (the script is credited to Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) struggled to break down a sufficiently exciting story that would bring the three leads together in a convincing way. It also commits a key mistake of these kinds of movies: it's an origin story, and the full potential of the set-up is not established until the credits are about to roll.

In among the slightly dull story are an awful lot of very well assembled action set pieces and comic scenes. There is a tremendous amount of fun to be had here, and certainly enough to overcome the shortcomings elsewhere in the film. It makes one wish for a sequel just to see the creative team get another crack at it. They got remarkably close this first time around, and it is a shame it's unlikely they will get a second chance.

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