How do you make a big-budget action movie feel fresh and interesting? For one, you can try for a “bigger is better” approach; bigger and crazier stunts, more massive explosions than those that came before it. That could be labeled the Transformers approach. There’s the Rush Hour approach, where the action sequences are taken very seriously, but you pepper in as much humor as possible, so it’s a balance between “Laugh at this gag” and “Watch Jackie Chan do crazy shit in a construction site.” The new James Bond movies featuring Daniel Craig shoot for an edgy, dark, and sexy-cool vibe, like an extended top-shelf whiskey commercial; Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies go for an edgy, dark, and toughest-of-tough-guy vibe. All these movies follow the same patterns of ass-kicking male main characters; bad guys that get the upper hand early on in the movie and require our main character(s) to mature or toughen up in order to ultimately overcome the villain; and sexy-but-also-tough lady love interests who our characters care about and win the affections of over the course of the movie (but who nearly never make it back for the sequel). The question is one of emphasis: do you want this to be a tough action movie, or a funny one, or a cool one? What subgenre will you pick?
Director: Guy Ritchie
Producers: Steve Clark-Hall, John Davis, Jeff Kleeman, Lionel Wigram
Writers: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman (story), David C. Wilson (story), Guy Ritchie (story), Lionel Wigram (story), Sam Rolfe (television series)
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Editor: James Herbert
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvestor Groth, Hugh Grant
US Theatrical Release: August 14, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. mines from a subgenre that is under-tapped: the action movie that is all about style. People run around and jump off buildings, they use crazy gadgets and accidentally fall in love with the woman they’re supposed to be protecting; but for U.N.C.L.E., it’s vitally important to maintain a sense of panache while jumping off that roof. You better look good doing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Based off of the TV series of the same name from the 1960’s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sends America’s best spy, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), on a mission to save the world. Ex-Nazi’s are covertly running around 1960’s Italy, doing the despicably evil things ex-Nazi’s are always trying to do, and are rumored to have kidnapped “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist” to complete a nuclear bomb. In the interest of maintaining world peace—and because the two nations don’t trust each other to solve the problem alone—Soviet Russia’s best spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) joins Solo as his partner. Helping them infiltrate the ex-Nazi’s shadowy organization is Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the rocket scientist’s East German daughter. Do they all hate each other? You bet! But dammit, if they are going to stop those Nazis, they’re going to have to learn how to work together.
It’s essentially a buddy cop movie, except the cops are jaw-droppingly sexy international superspies, purring out insults to each other in a variety of accents as they bicker their way around Rome. Henry Cavill was unbearable in the recent Superman movie—something about his perfect jawline and the dopey look of righteousness made him incredibly hateable, like a Wall Street analyst who pillages the financial system every day yet you just know sleeps perfectly sound every night,—but I liked him in U.N.C.L.E. He comes off as enjoyably prissy, a pretty boy sniffing disdainfully at the occasional messiness of life as a spy, much preferring the more refined work of plotting and scheming. Hammer’s Illya much prefers smashing and punching, but he gets a comical air of righteousness every time someone contradicts him; he’s the brilliant and lethal agent who’s used to being right, who doesn’t want to be told by a girl that his Roman architecture lesson is entirely wrong. Gluing the two men together is Gaby, a whirl of miniskirts and mod-era sunglasses.
One of the more interesting things about U.N.C.L.E. is that, instead of a single leading man and leading lady falling in love, the movie progresses with all three falling into an unusual sort of love with each other. In Casino Royale, there’s a scene where Bond picks a dress for his lady Vesper, brusquely telling her that he needs her looking fantastic and that he had sized her up from the moment they met. Vesper responds with a tuxedo for him, telling Bond that she needs him looking fantastic for her, and that he’d been sized up from moment number one as well. Bond is flustered; he’s met his sartorial match.
There’s a “wear this to the party” spy scene in U.N.C.L.E. too, but it functions on the level of homoerotic camp. Solo and Illya fuss and bicker about Gaby’s outfit for Rome in a department store changing room, spitting out designer handbag label names like insults, ridiculing each other for thinking he could get away with pairing this belt with that dress. Gaby literally stands on a pedestal between them, complaining that she doesn’t even want to go on this mission, and whose fiancée is she supposed to be, again? The whole thing is funny and flirty and on the right side of absurd, as all three have the bodies of idolized statues and could get away with wearing whatever they want to just about any party.
The emphasis on style extends beyond clothes. Action scenes are in no rush; they pan up and out, letting us take in the scenery a bit before cutting to the grappling hooks and daring escapes, and the extra time spent is well worth the fun. The occasional German or Russian subtitle doesn’t just drag along the bottom of the screen, but pops out from moving cars and running soldiers. (In other films “creative subtitling” has driven me crazy, but it’s very much in the spirit of things here). And the soundtrack matches the outfits, providing an audio backdrop of playful glamour as the trio muddle their way through deceptions and break-ins.
It’s not perfect. Nazi villains in movies tend to make for lazy character development; the bad guys are just kind of there, a one-dimensional coalition of henchmen we’re supposed to just take for granted is worth all this fuss. The plot gets overly complex and drags towards the movie’s final third, and it feels like we sit through several endings, each time only to hear, “But wait, there’s one more bad guy left!” The banter also can’t always quite keep up; our heroes growl and flirt throughout, but the wit in U.N.C.L.E. is nearly all nonverbal.
But it’s fun and often beautiful, and it’s a refreshing change of action movie pace. Contrary to the recent slate of gritty superhero reinventions, there is no rule that action movies have to be dark and “real.” They can be about fancy spies who travel the world in beautiful suits and dresses, who trade barbs at fancy parties while occasionally snooping for clues, and who sleep with only the sexiest of both their enemies and their allies. Both the gritty and the non-gritty are fantasies. Why not choose the pretty one, for a change?