The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Warner Bros., PG-13)

manfromuncle 75At least it’s nice to see a Guy Ritchie movie that isn’t a total waste of time.




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I’ve never had any use for director Guy Ritchie, who first made his name on pale Tarantino knockoffs like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch., but lately he has gone more generically Hollywood with stuff like the two Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies. His new one is The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the 1960s TV series and as a movie is clearly trying really hard to be the start of a franchise. Now, none of this sounds terribly promising, until you get a look at the cast, which is all full of talented up-and-comers: Henry Cavill (Superman from Man of Steel) is Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) is Illya Kuryakin, and Alicia Vikander (Ava from Ex Machina) is femme fatale-ish Gaby. Other friendly faces turn up as well, such as Jared Harris (Lane Pryce from Mad Men) and even Hugh Grant (of countless 90s romantic comedies), whom it seems like we haven’t seen in a while.

Really, most Guy Ritchie movies have at least one good element, but still manage to suck as a whole (examples: Lock, Stock has a great soundtrack, and I really like Brad Pitt in Snatch.), so there’s still no need to get your hopes up despite the strong cast. Going in with low expectations, though, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels like Ritchie’s most enjoyable film to date, even if that’s faint praise.

This is basically an origin story that appears to mostly be trying to set up sequels, and as such we see Solo first meet Gaby (who’s introduced as a hot girl who’s good with cars, a la Megan Fox in Transformers), and soon after we meet Kuryakin, as he (Solo) is trying to protect Gaby, who maybe doesn’t really need much protection after all. After this opening sequence, which has Solo and Kuryakin doing their best to kill one another, they find that they actually have to team up (with Gaby in tow) to get to Gaby’s father, a German scientist with a link to an atomic bomb that everyone is worried about. So it’s something of an odd couple American spy/Russian spy movie, which at least isn’t totally cowed by the notion of American exceptionalism (perhaps owing to Ritchie’s Britishness).

Despite that the movie is generally enjoyable, many of the performances are not. Cavill comes off the worst, mostly on account of his seeming inability to read any line of dialogue without taking a break halfway through the sentence. Vikander, who here looks like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Penelope Cruz but with a little Natalie Portman thrown in, is uneven at best—one would expect better after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth. On the other hand, Hammer comes off quite well, though one wonders why they couldn’t have just hired a real live Russian actor for the role. Hugh Grant is a treat in the few short scenes he’s in.

One overriding feeling I got while watching this film is that if Steven Soderbergh had directed it instead of Guy Ritchie, assuming he had the same cast and even the same script (which Ritchie co-wrote), he (Soderbergh) would have made it sexy as hell, whereas Ritchie’s version is merely functional. The year’s best spy movie is still Spy, but at least it’s nice to see a Guy Ritchie movie that isn’t a total waste of time. | Pete Timmermann

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