Thursday, August 13, 2015
Review: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
Brisk, daring and deliciously sexy, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is the end-of-summer surprise we've been waiting for.
Let's face it, August has historically become the summer movie season's dumping ground. Many kids are already back in school, vacations are mostly wound down, and films with lower profiles and stars of lesser wattage don't want to compete with the behemoths of May and June. I get it.
So it's always a thrill to encounter a flick that shakes off expectations and bounds over the doldrums. "Man," based on the TV show from the 1960s and set during that same period, is the best August time at the cinema since 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Both were based on moldy franchises that went from moribund to magnificent under the spell of energetic filmmakers and an electrifying cast.
Director Guy Ritchie did much the same to rejuvenate the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, though not to my liking. The dim steampunk streets and slo-mo chop-socky quickly grew tiring. Perhaps I like "Man" so much because it is those films' total opposite in tone and hue.
It's a gorgeous-looking movie, with vibrant primary colors and crisp focus. Henry Cavill's blue eyes, black forelock and incisor-sharp jawline practically seem to leap off a clothing designer's onionskin. Of course, he's helped by the splendid full-chested suits he wears. With a lavish production design, it's a world where even the thick glass tumblers the characters grab to fill with scotch look expensive and just-so tasteful.
Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, who if you'll recall is the rakish thief who got caught by the C.I.A. and threatened with jail if he didn't join their ranks. His opposite is Illya Kuryakin, a cold-blooded KGB tough who gets thrown in with him as his enforced partner. (He's played by Armie Hammer, who somehow wrangled top billing out of Superman's hands.) They form a ying-and-yang duo, the smooth operator and the psycho ready to snap, to get the job done.
"The job" is a nearly comprehensible MacGuffin of the classic order: some bad people have gotten their hands on nuclear technology, are building a bomb and trying to sell it to the Nazis, who somehow haven't heard about their surrender 18 years earlier. Don't worry about following the plot; it's just an excuse to set up big action spectacles, face-downs and hiss-able villains.
Cavill and Hammer are just about perfect in their respective parts. Cavill has got a Bond-esque thing going, cherishing his own unflappability, and he speaks his lines in a distinctive way that's somehow both charming and condescending. You've heard of "mansplaining"? He's spysplaining.
Since his breakout in "The Social Network," Hollywood really hasn't figured out what to do with Hammer, casting him as a hapless prince ("Mirror Mirror") or suffering the humiliation of making him the Lone Ranger and then having the cowboy icon usurped by his sidekick. He's flat-out terrific here, playing it straight and finding comedy by never winking at the camera. His Illya is simultaneously chilling and touching, a resentful lost boy in a superman's (small "s") body.
Alicia Vikander is Gaby, an East German mechanic who gets smuggled across the Berlin Wall because her dad was a nuke scientist for the Nazis, and is now suspected of helping some Italian aristocrats with the aforementioned bomb. The expected thing here would be to have her ensorcelled by the suave Napoleon, but she seems to only have well-mascaraed eyes for the sullen, withdrawn Russian.
Elizabeth Debicki is slithery and seductive as Victoria Vinciguerra -- just try saying that name, you'll love it -- who regards Napoleon like some viperous insect, something with which to copulate and then consume. Hugh Grant pops up as a likeable Brit harboring a secret agenda.
Ritchie pulls all the tricks out of his considerable director's bag: backward time jumps, split screens that keep splitting different directions, letting the music swell up and take over the movie for a moment, etc. Here the fancy stuff complements the material, rather than trying to dazzle us for its own sake.
But dazzle "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." does. It's a fresh cut on an old suit that plays its cards as they lay, and plays them with panache.