Sunday, August 16, 2015

In Theaters: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Alicia Vikander, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov. (PG-13, 116 mins)

With rare exception, the list of 1960s TV shows turned into big-budget event movies in the mid '90s to the early '00s is a pretty dire roll call of failure. For every MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or THE FUGITIVE, there's a slew of duds like WILD WILD WEST, THE SAINT, I SPY, BEWITCHED, THE MOD SQUAD, GET SMART, LOST IN SPACE, MCHALE'S NAVY, and THE AVENGERS, among others. In an age when every superhero is getting their own movie, 2015 seems a tad late to hop on the TV reboot bandwagon and bring THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen as a $75 million summer movie. It's even more surprising that it retains the period 1960s setting during the Cold War. The film was a long-in-gestation project, languishing in development hell for at least a decade, with Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Tom Cruise all attached at various times. On the heels of his career reinvention as a Hollywood franchise guy with Robert Downey Jr's SHERLOCK HOLMES films, the former LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS wunderkind Guy Ritchie fashions his U.N.C.L.E. as an extremely enjoyable retro '60s spy movie that's funny while successfully avoiding the camp and kitsch of a straight-up AUSTIN POWERS spoof. Other than some CGI work and some minor quick-cutting in some of the action sequences, Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. looks and feels like it could've been made in 1965, with the same level of outstanding production design, atmosphere, and attention to detail he brought to his semi-steampunk interpretation of SHERLOCK HOLMES. The fact is, nobody needed a MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. reboot and the idea sounded less than promising, almost like the film was setting itself up to bomb and clean up at the Razzies next spring. There's no reason this thing should be as giddily entertaining as it is, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.

The question is, will it matter? The target audience has to be older by default--how many in today's prime multiplex demographic even know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was? The spy series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as, respectively, U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, and Leo G. Carroll as their boss Waverly, aired on NBC from 1964-1968. It was a response to the 007 phenomenon (then hitting its stride with the much-anticipated release of GOLDFINGER, followed by the Bondmania zenith THUNDERBALL in 1965) and even had Ian Fleming onboard as a creative consultant until his death a month before the series premiere. It was so popular that NBC even edited episodes together, padded them with new or unused footage, and released them as feature films that became hits. That's right--U.N.C.L.E. fans went to the theater and paid to see re-edited versions of things they already saw on TV. Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. serves as an origin story for Solo (MAN OF STEEL's Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (THE LONE RANGER's Armie Hammer), who begin the film as nemeses. It's 1963, and Solo is in East Berlin to smuggle mechanic Gaby Teller (EX MACHINA's Alicia Vikander) to the west. Gaby is the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a scientist forced into being a Nazi collaborator during WWII. He's been in the secret employ of the US government but has gone missing and is now held prisoner by megalomaniacal shipping heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who's using him to develop a nuclear weapon. Solo and Kuryakin must become reluctant and constantly bickering allies to both protect Gaby and get her in contact with her uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), who may know of Udo's whereabouts. As they form a begrudging respect and friendship with one another as colleagues, Solo and Kuryakin are also operating under strict orders to obtain Vinciguerra's computer files--and take the other out if the need arises.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a lighthearted, globetrotting spy outing, filled with witty and occasionally smutty double entendres, great zingers ("For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?") and some quirky action scenes, including one that plays out in the background while Solo relaxes with a quick bite and some wine while sitting in his getaway truck. Hammer does a great job with his thick Russian accent and actually demonstrates some character depth even though Kuryakin is primarily a ball of barely-contained rage. Cavill is having a blast as the cocky, womanizing Solo, not doing a direct impression of Vaughn but beautifully nailing the great character actor's distinct vocal inflections and cadences, uttering his dialogue with a perpetually-arched eyebrow but never taking it over the line into self-aware snark (Hugh Grant plays their eventual boss Waverly, though his role is relatively brief here).Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, uncomplicated affair that's big on laughs but takes itself seriously when the situation warrants for a nice balance of serious action and intentional laughs. And that may ultimately be its commercial downfall: it's hard for 2015 audiences to accept a period piece like this at face value, without the kitsch and the parody element that an AUSTIN POWERS would bring to the table. It's one thing to wonder if the kids today know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was, but do they even know what the Cold War was?  Ritchie's film is terrific entertainment and the kind of movie you'll stop and watch until it's over every time you come across it while channel-surfing as it plays on HBO in perpetuity...but will anybody under 40 even care about this movie right now?

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