By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Hey daddyo, the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie based on the jazzy, 1960’s, Cold War, go-go and groovy TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), comes across more of a gas than a drag as we relive the tight wire tensions of an unlikely U.S.-U.S.S.R.-U.K triumvirate of enemies uniting under the pillar of preventing some underground, covert agency of creating worldwide nuclear mayhem. What’s totally hep about this cellular rag is that director Guy Ritchie kept the film’s 1960’s fab, rather than get all spaz attacked out under the guise of making it a repertoire of modern flash by inveigling pseudo-technology way beyond it’s time period.
Ritchie’s approach to the film is actually rather daring when you consider that anyone under the age of 30 might not get what’s the big deal of American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) working with the KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Furthermore, the film avoids big, over-the-top martial arts stylized fight sequences like we saw in Kingsman earlier this year, probably because that sort of action was not important to the success of the TV show. Each week in England, we’d tune in to see how cool cat opposites Solo and Kuryakin could work together to save the world and at the same time, forge a binding friendship and trustworthy partnership.
It’s retro flavor with an old-style diner menu, but with neo-nostalgia ala king. This is most evident in the opening scene, which turns out to be a great catch and not a fish drowning in muddy waters, because we’re not singing the blues but the Beatles. It’s no coincidence that Cavill’s cleft chin casting of Solo perfectly clung to Robert Vaughn’s similar chin of choice as they both made beautiful clef music together shooting one-liners and guns.
In the Film Affair, suave Solo dressed in snazzy tailored threads and the chafed, roid-raged Kuryakin are ordered to ignore their innate behaviors to waste each other away and rescue a former “nice guy” Nazi, rocket scientist being arm-twisted or else, to build a nuclear warhead for the filthy rich, villainous socialite Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
The film opens as Solo is purposely on the wrong side of checkpoint Charlie in Berlin in search of the gallantly plucky and race car enthusiast, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of the rocket scientist, in hopes of convincing her to help save her father. As she’s leaning toward no, the East German secret police enter Stasi left as Teller and Solo exit stage right, only to run into the dragon-breathed Kuryakin, a “I must break you” Soviet version of Rocky IV‘s Drago.
Then the “high speed” car chase is on, which comes across more cute than exciting. Manly-men who exude intimidating postures, become hunch backed figures stuck inside old rattletrap, Pinto- sized, Trabants, East German automobiles that can hit a maximum speed of 51 mph that makes the car shake so much that it can ruin dialogue. How could this be fun? Ritchie pulls it off.
U.N.C.L.E. essentially follows the hijinks of these three, as they jockey back and forth between enemy tolerance and mutual friendship growth. In actuality, the fulcrum of their success leans more toward Teller’s wiles as she comes across like a younger sister who has to verbally bash her two-older brothers to stop acting like assholes and get on with it…the mission.
Teller is obviously a Stephanie Powers’s April Dancer from the original U.N.C.L.E. franchise but with more equality. She’s reaping the benefits laid down by Maude (1972) who feverishly fought for the ERA.
As a fight choreographer, I do need to comment on the single pugilistic non-mayhem fight where Kuryakin takes on a few baddies. To the detriment of U.N.C.L.E.’s case, I was trained by top notch fight choreographers and fight directors during my stint as an actor/stuntman in Chinese kung fu films. I was the token white guy who got my butt kicked in by Chinese kung fu film stars. Yet the kick-butt token fight in U.N.C.L.E., in a word…sucks.
It’s poorly choreographed, doesn’t show anything, and filmed in a way that hides what’s being done rather than allow the audience to revel in Kuryakin’s sambo/judo skills. Basically, it’s the kind of fight a bunch of beginner karate students from a local dojo could put together on a Sunday afternoon using an old VHS camera and low brow editing equipment. Yes, I’ve done that.
Yet at the end of the day, this shouldn’t matter, because as previously mentioned, the show and now of course the film, doesn’t live or die on the combative arsenal of action that most spy thrillers now try to tap into.
But who knows, maybe fans will see this as a weak point. I must admit, I would have been more blown away with the film if there was a touch of Kingsman and John Wick (2014) imaginative fight delights put onto the final menu. After all, both of these films are already deep into sequel planning based upon their novel hyperkinetic styles of action that uniquely blended with the caricatures of their respective films.