Screened Out – The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

By : Stephen Miller
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Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki

Look sharp! Brace yourself for some dashing Mod style lightly stirred with a fast and frothy spy thriller.

With 007 and the Mission: Impossible films still on our radars after decades, one might argue that we don’t need yet another franchise in this oeuvre. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie’s take on the popular ‘60s TV show says otherwise. It’s a charming, clever and breezy lark with enough style for three films – escapist cinema at its most foppish.

It’s the mid-1960s and the Cold War is in full swing. Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a slick thief nabbed by the US government and now forced to do super-spy stuff. This exceedingly handsome man performs with calm and panache, even if he’s in dark, creepy East Berlin. He’s here to secure Gaby Teller (Vikander) the daughter of a missing nuclear scientist, who may be building a warhead for a third party.

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Alicia Vikendar also sports some serious style in this Kodachrome-tinted film.

Even with the flick’s Cold War milieu, don’t expect any depth. U.N.C.L.E. is mined simply and effectively for broad, farcical comedy. The C.I.A. chief at one point hollers, “Inside every Kraut is an American fighting to get out!”

Both the Americans and the Soviets are interested in remaining the only superpowers. So, they team up – Cavill must work with tall, handsome and tough Russian spy Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) – to save the world.

What U.N.C.L.E. delivers are two droll, international fops – brilliant minds working with and against each other. Both are vain and stylish, like heroes of great farces. They check out each other’s footwear. They trade insults. Good thing Vikander is there to flirt with Hammer, and better thing Cavill sleeps around, or both Hammer and Cavill would seem ambiguously gay.

When on mission picking the two locks on a door, one says, “I’ll be the top,” and the other agrees, “I’ll be the bottom.”

OK, so it’s pretty airy stuff. Not every film has to have earth-shaking gravitas. Leave that to the new, grimmer 007. I’ll take my spies trotting the globe, posing on fast cars, and making quips about whether each other’s neckties matches their impeccably tailored suits.

Guy Ritchie co-wrote and directed this light and fast spy flick.

Guy Ritchie co-wrote and directed this light and fast spy flick.

This film is certainly dashing! Ritchie has always had a strong design aesthetic. That’s part of what makes Snatch and the Sherlock Holmes franchise fun. Yet, by the end of many of his projects, he also let the action completely steamroll over the characters. (See his Sherlock flicks, Revolver, and RocknRolla.)

In U.N.C.L.E., he completely avoids that mistake, often showing the action in quick montage so he can get back to the songs, style, and jokes. That’s both a very good move and a dicey one. The film can seem trite. The tension can seem tamped down beneath the comic moments. Also, I missed seeing the elaborate mechanics of each mission; U.N.C.L.E. has been tailored to exclude these bits, which robs this spy thriller of part of its allure. There’s probably a way to include the Rube Goldberg-like operations, the pulse-quickening moments, and the characters trading bon mots – likely in the same scenes.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Yet, most importantly, U.N.C.L.E. never loses its sense of 1960s international flavor. That’s what makes this escapist flick dapper and airy and oh so very entertaining.

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