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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie review: Cold War, lukewarm

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

Guy Ritchie’s spy-themed GQ fashion shoot. Pure popcorn nonsense, sleek and chic and vaguely funny, but instantly forgettable.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve literally just come from a multiplex showing of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and already I’ve forgotten it. I seem to recall not disliking it while it was unspooling, so I guess that’s good? Now, though, I’m struggling to come up with a reason for the existence of this movie at all. Was there a demand for a big-screen version of the 60s TV show that I was unaware of? Or has Hollywood simply run out of old properties to do over? Is there a trend thinktank working somewhere in New York or London that is desperately trying to get us all into Cold War chic so that Target and ASOS can shift some orange A-line dresses and oversized novelty telephones? Is there a propaganda workgroup at the Pentagon that wants to distract us from ISIL and mass surveillance and hopes we’ll get nostalgic about international nuclear brinkmanship?

Something about Italian industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki: The Great Gatsby, A Few Best Men) who is building a nuclear bomb for a reason that’s not very clear. But later we learn that she already has her very own private island-slash-secret lair, and supervillainy was still a growth industry in the early 1960s; she is an ambitious woman so why not? The Americans send in an agent, and the Soviets send in an agent, and they have to work together because rogue nukes wielded by crazy beautiful ladies totally ruin the nice battle-of-the-superpowers thing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have going, maybe. It would have been nice if the film — written by director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, RocknRolla) with Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes) — thought to slip in just a little political commentary about WMDs or power squabbles or anything, really, but this is just pure popcorn nonsense with a uranium macguffin as CIA man Napoleon Solo and KGB man Illya Kuryakin run around East Berlin and Rome insulting each other and rescuing each other and male-bonding each other. Nothing they say or do ever quite reaches the level of the actually funny: it’s more sort of vaguely amusing almost, like they’re in a sitcom that forgot to add the laugh track. Both Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, The Cold Light of Day) as Solo and Armie Hammer (Entourage, The Lone Ranger) as Kuryakin look like they’re auditioning for the next James Bond reboot, which isn’t automatically terrible: they are very handsome men and if nothing else, this is two hours of lovely eye candy. But the overall affect is like Guy Ritchie shot a spy-themed fashion spread for GQ.

Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth, Ex Machina) is also very pretty, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do: she exists in the story because her Gaby Teller is the daughter of the former Nazi rocket scientist and nuclear-bomb maker working with Vinciguerra, and everyone thinks she can lead the Good Guys in the right direction. She’s smart and capable, but she doesn’t get to see anywhere near as much action, or use anywhere near as much of her brains, as the guys do. Perhaps in the sequel she’ll get parity.

Of course there’s going to be a sequel. This movie doesn’t even get around to setting up the spy agency known as U.N.C.L.E. until the end credits, so neither Solo nor Kuryakin is the man from it here. Which is fairly emblematic of the movie itself: it never quite comes into its own as it scrambles around trying to figure out what it wants to be.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for its representation of girls and women.

yellow light 2.5 stars

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
US/Can release: Aug 14 2015
UK/Ire release: Aug 14 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate action violence)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Jurgan

    “Napoleon Solo”

    You’re joking, right? Sheesh, M. Night Shyamalan is saying to tone it down, and he wrote a character named “Cypher Rage.”

  • You’ve never heard of the original television show?

    Apparently Ian Fleming named the character…

  • David C-D

    When I saw Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer headlining I felt some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised at Cavill’s charm. For a yellow light it was a pretty pleasant and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Seemed like everyone involved was having a good time.

  • Jurgan

    Sure, I’ve heard of it (my dad was a big fan), but that doesn’t mean I could tell you anything about it. Incidentally, your first paragraph made me think you’d never heard of it at first.

    Kind of funny that Ian Fleming’s most famous character was deliberately given the blandest name he could imagine.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I remember trying to watch syndicated reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E back in the 1990s but it was never really my cup of tea –and unlike the Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers, the show itself did not exactly age well, especially in regard to gender roles. (In other words, you’d be in little danger of encountering an American version of Emma Peel on this show. In fact, most of the female characters that appeared in this show made Tara King seem like Emma Peel.)

    I suspect it was the influence of Mad Men that helped greenlight this movie. Things from the 1960s are “in” now; this is from the 1960s; let’s make a movie.

    Oh, well. At least the trailer seemed nice — but then trailers for movies like this usually do.

  • James Hay

    “Pussy Galore”.

  • James Hay

    Fleming actually went through the London phone book…looking for the dullest name he could find.

  • James Hay

    Funny how Puritan people have become today about “gender roles”.
    “You have to be a weaponized tomboy, dear.”

  • RogerBW

    I’m biast (con): I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the original.

    But I can’t really see either of these two fashion plates getting their hands dirty the way Vaughan and McCallum could convince you they did.

    I know Hollywood loves origin stories, but this was a show that never needed one. You can work out in the first few seconds that these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and that’s really all the setup there is; it’s not terrifically complex stuff. The heroes snipe at each other but would die for each other; you don’t need a whole film to establish that.

  • James Hay

    A lot of actressed liked playing “sex kittens”. Angie Dickinson, Shirley Maclaine, Liza Manelli, Brigitte Bardot- loved it.
    Strong willed, independent women…every one of them. Intelligent, as well (except maybe Bardot).
    The feminists of the time hated them.

  • In what way does “puritanical” apply to gender roles?

  • A lot of actresses didn’t have many other options beyond “sex kitten.”

    Please go elsewhere for your feminism primer.

  • James Hay

    You want to limit the options of good actresses.

    Feminism is a type of Puritanism. Puritanism is preaching public morals…as a form of control over others.

    Puritans hate “free spirits” like poison. Especially the “free” part.

  • Jurgan

    I don’t want to speak for Maryann, but I’d bet she’d say that she has no problem with women playing those types of characters, just that there should be a larger range of roles available for women.

  • James Hay

    Ever watch old Elvis movies? More female characters than you can shake a stick at…everything from race car mechanics to débutantes.
    That is what makes Mad Men such b.s. Women in the 60’s did what they wanted…if they didn’t like a job or personal situation…they simply left.
    The PC crowd pretended to admire the freedom of the 60’s for years…but they didn’t…just the promiscuity.
    Mad Men is revisionism…pretending the freedom never existed.

  • Feminism is a type of Puritanism.

    Thanks for my laugh for the day.

  • As I said elsewhere, you need an education in basic feminism, and we are not here to provide it. Please go do some reading.

  • Tonio Kruger

    A secret agent is a “free spirit”? Do tell.

    For what it’s worth, while I’ll admit to being sexually conservative than many of the people who post here, I’m hardly a Puritan. But then I suppose that’s the type of thing a Puritan would say.

    In any event, my issues with the show have nothing to do with hating freedom. It’s about disliking certain stereotypes.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Ever see The Big Sleep? Bogie’s character dealt with all types of women ranging from socialites to cab drivers — and that in a movie made in the 1940s.

    In any event, I have my own issues with Mad Men. And my late Mexican-born father — who actually lived through the 1960s as an adult — would undoubtedly laugh at your idea of the freedom of the 1960s if he were alive today. Just because that decade wasn’t Oceania to your family does not necessarily mean it was Utopia for everyone.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I always found Robert Vaughan more convincing as a villain than a hero myself. But then I grew up in a family where the main spy show my parents watched was Mission: Impossible. (Though for what it’s worth, my mom is also a big fan of NCIS — a primetime TV series which features in a supporting role — you guessed it! — David McCallum. Of course, if she was a big fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E back in the day, she has yet to share that information with me.)

  • Liz Smith

    I saw it yesterday and I quite enjoyed it. I’m speaking as a child of the 60’s and a big fan of the TV series. Was it a fantastic movie, no…but it wasn’t dire either. I thought Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander generated a lot of heat together, that dance scene was downright sexy. And it was the first time I really enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie. It could have used a better villain and a stronger story line, but I really liked it. Maybe it was seeing all those 60;s fashions and remembering when I wore big dangly earrings. It was enjoyable IMO. I really didn’t expect anything else, I remember the TV series very well. They wore great clothes in that series as well. I don’t know if I’m being shallow here, but I like great clothes is a movie.

  • The movie certainly does *look* nice. :-)

  • Liz Smith

    Like I said, I thought it was a great deal of fun

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