“Saving the World Never Goes Out of Style” or “A Higher Class of Hero”
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander
Top CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill), a decorated soldier turned art thief turned agent, extracts Gaby Teller (Vikander), the daughter of a paperclipped and now vanished nuclear physicist, from East Germany, despite the dogged pursuit of near-superhuman KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer). With Dr Teller seemingly in the hands of a neo-Nazi criminal organisation run by Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) Vinciguerra, Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to team up and escort Gaby to Rome, where her uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) may be able to lead them to her father.
In Rome, Kuryakin – posing as an architect and Gaby’s fiance – is hard pressed to act the mild mannered academic, while Solo and Gaby are more at home socialising with the apparent enemy. They discover that the Vinciguerras have enriched enough uranium to make a bomb, but removed it from storage, leaving Gaby their only hope of tracking her father and the device.
Seemingly betrayed by Gaby, Solo is tortured by Rudi before being rescued by Kuryakin, and the two are reassigned to a rescue mission with Gaby’s British Intelligence handler, Mr Waverley (Hugh Grant). Violence and bonding ensue, with Waverley ultimately securing a longer term assignment for the team, under the codename U.N.C.L.E.
What’s wrong with it?
The idea of an origin story for U.N.C.L.E. runs kind of contrary to the basic premise of the original TV series, which was basically ‘this is here, deal with it.’ It was an absurd setup in many ways – a multinational agency in the midst of the Cold War in which Russian and American agents cooperated to fight international criminals in all nations – but that was part of its charm. Explaining it seems… wrong, somehow. Still and all, the film should be seen as its own thing.
I do still have a problem with the title, which would more accurately be ‘The Man (or Woman and Three Men) to U.N.C.L.E. I’m just saying.
What the good god damn is up with the score on this thing? It’s fucking insane in places, utterly drowning out any other sound with its faux Morricone wailing.
The Ocean’s 11 style clever flashbacks get to be really fucking annoying, especially when they’re explaining something that you would basically have to be a complete moron not to have worked out or add nothing to the understanding of the scene that a simple mention wouldn’t have done.
Ilya’s anger management issues add little to the film or the character.
The action sequences are often a little confusing thanks to camerawork almost as violent as the fights.
Solo and Kuryakin’s suavity occasionally nudges over into callousness.
As with many sixties remakes, adherence to source means that the film is definitely not contributing to the diversification of Hollywood.
What’s right with it?
The casting, while a little bizarre – a huge American to play a Russian originally played by a relatively diminutive Scot, and a British actor affecting a transatlantic drawl in homage to a performance strongly inspired by the transatlantic drawl of the Anglo-American Cary Grant – is effective. Cavill’s Solo is an almost perfect transition from the original, while Hammer’s Kuryakin captures both the ruthless, clinical efficiency and wariness of romance of the original, despite being about as different as possible physically without being an Asian woman (it could work; Iliana Kuyakin, Inner Mongolia’s deadliest export.)
Despite setting Teller up as merely ‘the asset’, the mid-point twist provides the film with a much needed capable female character who isn’t a villain, and while she does need to be rescued, she then contributes substantially to the final resolution and is part of the ongoing team.
The film’s atmosphere and tone are excellent, with a slightly dirtied-up print contributing to a sixties air. It has much of the lightness of the show, without dropping into the excessive camp of later episodes.
The pacing is also good, and the mix of action and banter well-judged. In both departments, Kuryakin and Solo are kept equal, which is important in a buddy piece.
How bad is it really?
It’s not bad at all, and from a hit-and-miss director like Ritchie, that’s pretty good. It comes across as a bit messy in places, and provides an origin for U.N.C.L.E. that was not lacking before, it just wasn’t there. It also grounds the story in a semi-plausible real world setting, where the original used a deliberately implausible agency and equally unlikely criminal super-group to create a good vs. evil struggle unmarred by superiors asking the agents to murder each other over technical secrets.
So, yeah; it’s a decent not-too-serious spy caper, perhaps hampered and helped in equal part by the U.N.C.L.E. name.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Escaping in a speedboat, but trapped in a harbour, Solo falls from the back of the boat. Swimming ashore he takes shelter in a truck, listens to the radio and plunders the driver’s lunch while Kuryakin goes back and forth in front of him. It’s beautifully done.
What’s up with…?
- Alicia Vikander? She’s in seven movies this year. Meryl Streep is like, dude.
- The bits where we can’t hear what people are saying, but they subtitle them anyway?
- The use of flashbacks which add nothing in tension?
Production values – Very slickly made, and with a tinge of patina to the film quality that lends an overtone of period. Unfortunately the sometimes overwhelming score and shaky violence do detract. 8
Dialogue and performances – Pretty damned fine. I never beat my head on the floor at the script, and the actors were uniformly good, and despite a fair degree of cross-accenting (both Cavill and Hammer, and also Jared Harris as Solo’s boss, suggesting that the CIA is entirely staffed by Brits doing accents) they were never glaring. 4
Plot and execution – Good pacing and clear stages, let down by the overuse of flashbacks. In many ways, the clarity of the plot is what makes the flashbacks unnecessary and often unwelcome. 6
Randomness – Aside from the absence of cameos from Vaughn and McCallum, the spontaneous ignition of a minor villain and a Russian knock-out technique which looks pretty silly and is just crying out for a lawsuit in a film that children can see, pretty much nothing to report. 4
Waste of potential – There were enough faults that this film could have been better, and it took a risk in being significantly different to the source material, but all in all, a good job. 4