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Monday, August 24, 2015

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

Guy Richie's weird career path takes another unexpected turn...

After turning Sherlock Holmes on his head, Guy Richie continues to stay away from the more "personal" films that have dragged his name into the mud (see Swept Away, Revolver, RocknRolla) and has turned his attention to a new franchise; this time trying to translate the '60s James Bond cash-in TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, to the big screen for modern audiences. This being a Guy Richie movie though, things aren't quite so simple, and I'm still undecided on whether he actually fulfilled his goals here or not. The Man from U.N.C.L.E is many things but mostly it's a very intriguing mess of one part traditional spy movie, one part spy spoof and fifteen parts Guy Richie indulgence that irritates as often as it impresses, bores as often as it thrills and is as likely to make you laugh as it is to make you groan. One thing it certainly isn't, though, is Swept Away and for that we should all be grateful.    

The plot is overly complicated even by spy movie standards but all you really need to know is that this is basically the origin story of the U.N.C.L.E agency and it involves our two spies, Russia's Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer - American) and America's Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill - British, sometimes Kryptonian) working together with a German asset, Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander - Swedish) to stop a group of Nazis from acquiring (or maybe selling? - it's all about as clear as mud) a nuclear weapon being designed by Teller's father. Plots in spy flicks are often of secondary importance but the first place that the Man From U.N.C.L.E lets the side down is in just how incomprehensible and convoluted its plot is - which is especially odd considering how often Richie over-explains the film's various twists and turns through a couple of dozen utterly unnecessary flashbacks.

But then, this being a Guy Richie flick, those expository flashbacks that aren't so much flash-backed to but are smashed against whatever's happening in the present, without any noticeable transition whatsoever. It's very Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and it doesn't really work here, especially as they only ever really explain the stuff that the audience has already figured out. It's also pretty symptomatic of the film's worst tendencies of Richie allowing his various stylistic ticks to overwhelm clear storytelling, proper pacing and any real emotional involvement that we might otherwise have had with these characters.

On the flip side though, while Richie does often get in the way of himself, there are also just as many moments when his sense of style, kinetic camera work and often absurdist sense of humour work brilliantly and allow the film to stand up to, if not quite match or surpass, the other half dozen or so spy flicks released this year. There is a particularly brilliant sequence involving a high-speed boat race that is almost worth the price of admission alone. The Man from U.N.C.L.E doesn't subvert the genre nearly as effectively as Kingsman: The Secret Service or pack in the punches quite as effectively as Spy but its subversive and funny enough to just about hold its own.

Richie also has a very good cast to keep things afloat when Richie's self-indulgence threatens to take over. Armie Hammer, armed with a decent enough Russian accent, brings enough likability to keep his hot-tempered secret agent from ever becoming too one-note, while Henry Cavill just about surpasses the questionable choice of having a quite stilted cadence to his speech by bringing the same physical presence and serious movie-star good looks that he brought to the Man of Steel but this cool superspy is a far better fit for his somewhat icy screen persona than Superman ever was. Both leads also score high in the comic department, impressing especially in the film's many physical comedy moments.

Best of all though, and easily outshining her male co-stars and an impressive supporting cast that includes High Grant, Jared Harris and Elizabeth Debicki, is the thoroughly terrific Alicia Vikander. Vikander already received rave noticed for her turn in the highly acclaimed scifi movie, Ex Machina, which was released in most other countries earlier this year but remains A.W.O.L here, presumably because South Africans would rather watch another fucking Leon Shuster movie than something halfway interesting! Not that I'm bitter or anything. Regardless, Vikander is brilliant here: kick-ass, funny and vulnerable, she is by far the most human person in the entire film, and if I already wanted to see Ex Machina, I do all the more so now after having seen what Vikander is capable of here.

I'm not quite sure how or why there have been so many spy movies released this year - and we're still waiting on the latest Bond movie - but considering how good Spy, Kingsman and the latest Mission Impossible have been, it's easy to see Man from U.N.C.L.E getting lost in the shuffle. For all of its many flaws, however, it has more than enough to recommend about it that I really hope that doesn't happen.

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