Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Marvelous "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

There have been so many spy movies this year from "Furious 7" to "Spy" to the latest James Bond movie.  I think I've found my favorite of the year, a loving throwback to Cold War spy films based on the 1964 series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."  Guy Ritchie puts together a stellar group of acting talent, with a lighthearted script, gorgeous locales, and a sensational soundtrack to tie the whole thing together.  There's not as much action in it as some might hope for, but it doesn't lack for excitement.

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) helps a young woman named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape from Communist East Berlin, hoping that she can help lead them to her father, a nuclear engineer who has disappeared.  A KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), is hot on their tails.  However, having determined that Gaby's father may be working on a nuclear bomb for Nazi sympathizer Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the CIA and KGB decide to team up, and stick Solo and Kuryakin together as reluctant partners.  They go to Rome, where Gaby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is working for Vinciguerra, to try and infiltrate the operation.  Kuryakin poses as Gaby's fiancé, to her dismay, while Solo poses as an antiquities dealer to cozy up to Vinciguerra directly.  And of course there are dangerous missions, double crosses, daring escapes, a little romance, and a lot of witty banter.

The plot is an overcomplicated jumble, as it was in Guy Ritchie's last "Sherlock Holmes" movie, but here the performances are so much fun, I didn't care.  Cavill's square-jawed Napoleon Solo oozes charm and just the right amount of cavalier nonchalance.  There's a lot of Cary Grant in his performance in a good way.  Hammer's Kuryakin is a sympathetic, if touchy soul, and definitely a co-lead.  It's nice seeing the two of them having some fun after the gloomy "Man of Steel" and the muddled "Lone Ranger."  They make a very good comedic pair, constantly bickering and trying to one-up each other before becoming grudging allies.  The ladies are no slouches either.  Vikander's feisty gamine has no trouble keeping up with the boys, while Debicki's icy femme fatale steals every scene she's in.  After this and "The Great Gatsby," I hope Debicki gets a lot more work, because her presence is fantastic.

Ritchie throws himself into recreating the 1960s as it only existed in the movies, with a playful sensibility that makes it accessible to young and old alike. I've found the director a little hit-or-miss, since he can go overboard with his visual tricks and elaborate stylization.  In "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." I noticed that he has a tendency to repeat gags: something mundane happening in the foreground contrasts with something crazy happening in the out-of-focus background, the narrative doubles back on a scene to insert extra bits of information that makes it play out in a different way, and there are two rounds of split screen montages.  They work most of the time, though, are well executed.  Really, there's little here that I haven't seen in other spy movies, but it's all done with such an admirable level of care and craft.  There's so much retro eye candy, from the fashions to the Roman locales, to the cars.  The substance is lacking here and there, but the style is good enough to carry the film.

I've never seen any of the original "Man from U.N.C.L.E.," but I can't imagine any of the old fans would have any strong objections to the reboot.  It's definitely putting its own spin on the material rather than aping a past success, and more importantly it's not garishly modernized like "The Green Hornet" or "Get Smart."  This is one of the only spy films in recent years that I can think of that really romanticizes the profession of being a secret agent again.  Oh, it's winking terribly whenever Solo drops a double entendre, but there's definitely a nostalgic taste of the old exoticism from the early James Bond days in the mix.  I didn't realize until now that I've been missing it, just a bit.  There are so many spy movies these days, but so little to intrigue.


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