All cookie-cutter Hollywood thrillers should be so good.
If there is an Platonic ideal for the entertaining but forgettable Hollywood blockbuster, it would probably look like The Man from UNCLE. This is a technically accomplished 60s-era thriller with slick and well-executed set-pieces, a bounty of femme fatale figures, well-pressed suits and coiffed hair, and the quasi-humorous enemies-to-comrades character arcs of the two leading men, played by the chisel-jawed Henry Cavill and the icy-eyed Arnie Hammer.
This is a spy thriller set in the Cold War, with the accompanying set dressing and slightly regressive gender attitudes. It is meant to be a modern-day rendition of the original TV series, and a sort of origin story that sees the the two future U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, work together for the first time to prevent nuclear technology from falling into the hands of South American Nazis.
Honestly, the plot is irrelevant to these kinds of movies, which are all about characters and how they play off against each other. In this regard, the evolving relationship between the immaculate, smug Solo and the brooding Kuryakin is quite humorously compelling. Vikander’s character, Gaby, is unfortunately somewhat of a third wheel in this burgeoning relationship, more of a plot element – the indispensable femme fatale component of such films – than a fully-formed character in her own right, which is a shame.
The film is directed and shot with confidence and panache, with a certain old-style charm that suggests a sense of choreography – no in-vogue shaky cam here. And the set-pieces evoke a probably highly historically inaccurate, but stylish, vintage sensibility – from the shiny Italian sportscars and richly furnished Roman hotels, to the antiseptic retro-futurism of the nuclear facilities.
The humor provides the film a unique sense of character, as well. The relationship between the two men is punctuated by the kind of machismo-ridden rivalry that is the mainstay of buddy comedy. The jokes are more subtle and muted than your average Marvel film, but I think they fit in with the period setting quite well.
But when all is said and done, however, The Man from UNCLE still lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to elevate it to a true summer hit. It has all the moving parts, but they fit together in a way that we’ve seen many times before. It’s a going-through-the-motions affair, that, at the end of the day, is pretty much a highly entertaining and kinetic, but forgettable, two-hour long distraction, to be watched, enjoyed and then forgotten. It might be an unfair verdict to make of a film that has such an obvious sense of craft and style, but in today’s saturated blockbuster scene, more is needed to set it apart from the others.
I do hope they eventually make a sequel, though.
I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 tracking devices