Monday, 31 August 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) - Movie Review

Well… This is going to be a weird follow-up to my last review. I mean, after a film that broke me that much, I could be watching anything today and it would be a vast improvement. Not only that, it was about as far away from my comfort zone that I've reached yet, even considering my old YouTube days, so going back to my standard formula after that is going to feel a bit off. Still, I don’t want to grind that gimmick into the ground just yet, so for now it’s business as usual. And with that, it’s time for a film remake of a classic 60’s spy TV show… and no, I’m talking about Mission: Impossible

The plot: In the face of Nazi sympathiser Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and her plans to construct her own nuclear weapon, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are forced to work together to stop her. They each send an agent out into the field, C.I.A. agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to protect Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a former Nazi scientist who Victoria wants to use to build the weapon, all the while trying to keep each other out of the loop on their other mission objectives involving the weapon plans.

After the initial one-two punch of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Guy Ritchie does hold a certain place in my heart as a legitimate filmmaker, even if his more recent efforts haven’t yet been able to match that early peak. After 2013’s one-two punch of Man Of Steel and The Lone Ranger, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer both hold a certain place on my watch list as actors to be cautious of. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call this stunt casting as bringing together two doses of critical poison under a single roof could hardly be an accident. Still, these choices still look better than those made in that other Henry Cavill action movie even without watching the film, and Cavill and Hammer actually work well together.

Most of their banter may resort to manhood measuring, but their on-screen chemistry at least makes that prospect palatable. Cavill’s Solo is a bit of a prick throughout, but he at least follows the golden in that regard by at least being funny while he does so. He feels a lot more in his element here than he does as Space Jesus, as he wears Solo’s prototypical American smugness rather well. Hammer, aside from pulling off the accent a lot better than I ever would have expected, makes for a decent contrast to this as the brutish Russian Illya and while his anger issues come across as a bit shallow in terms of development, it gives him a few notes of characterization that are honestly missing from most of the rest of the film. However, aside from these two, no one else really registers all that well; yeah, the two guys whom I fully expected to crash and burn here ended up being the best actors here. Vikander as Gaby ends up just being a stock femme fatale, and while Debicki is fun as our villain, she’s only fun in that immediate sense; I can barely remember what she did in the film specifically, just that it was enjoyable to watch.

Even during his lower budget days, Ritchie had a flair for slick and stylized filmmaking and this is no exception. Going into this, the fact that this is based on a pretty dated 60’s action TV show makes this feel kind of unnecessary, but Ritchie seems to have taken that fact to heart. This has a lot of 60’s sensibilities surrounding it, mostly to do with sexuality. Nowadays, subtlety seems to be a lost art in that area, but here we get a return of the classic spy innuendo with maybe some off-screen sounds; a bare back is the closest you’ll get to nudity in this film. It may enter the realms of too chaste, given how we don’t even get to see characters kiss in this film, but it’s admirable that he went in that direction at all. Less admirable, however, are the rest of the style choices made in the production. The action scenes are rushed through, shot with a camera on loan from a found footage studio with all the shakes to match and are edited to the point where it is near impossible to focus on what’s going on. Add to that the weird segmented and almost comic-book-panel framing of a couple of scenes, and this makes for a pretty drastic step-down from the relatively high pedigree for action from earlier this year.

This film has an awful lot of tonal problems as well. At times, it’s as if they’re trying to go for a Get Smart kind of mood, and at others it’s more like Mission: Impossible. This see-sawing between tongue-in-cheek and attempts at sophistication makes it kind of difficult to tell when the film is supposed to be taken seriously. The best way I can illustrate this is the difference between both of the film’s torture scenes involving an electric chair: One is treated with utmost seriousness, and the other mere moments after is treated as a joke by our “heroes”. Maybe this is an extension of Solo’s stance of “America, fuck yeah!”, where torture is only taken seriously if it’s done to them and not by them, but regardless, it’s a good example of how not to mindfrag.

As a result of the bipolar tone, along with the sparse characterisation, a lot of the scenes don’t really register and the basic spy thriller plot doesn’t help with that. Aside from the aforementioned first torture scene that was handled well, the only other scene that stands out is Solo’s picnic. Said picnic is probably the epitome of Solo as a character: He’s an arsehole, but still willing to carry out his job when necessary and will even help out his allies in a pinch.

All in all, this is pretty darn lame. While I give credit to Cavill and Hammer for not sucking bricks like their reputations would have audiences assume, their admittedly decent buddy dynamic doesn’t do much to rescue this film’s poorly paced action beats, misguided stylistic decisions and lack of tonal consistency. Given how Snatch is one of my all-time favourite films and that the man is responsible for bringing Jason Statham to the world’s attention, it’s kind of disheartening to see Ritchie fall by the wayside like this. Then again, given how he followed up Snatch with Swept Away and Revolver, this fall from grace isn’t all that surprising either. I can’t find a reason to properly recommend this to anyone; I haven’t watched the original series so I don’t know how it compares, and it isn’t all that good on its own. If you catch it on TV one night, it won’t kill you to keep it on if nothing else is.

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