Published Nov 17, 2015With Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law being preoccupied with other projects, there was a franchise void for populist late summer adult sleuth fare, which is presumably why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was tossed into production, and why Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie was hired to helm it. Though it takes place in a different decade, the basic premise is that two perpetually bickering men wind up in an endless series of farcically comic action scenarios while a potential female romantic lead doles out bon mots and intermittently outsmarts them both.
With U.N.C.L.E., the basic premise of the original television series remains intact — American CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB Operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are unlikely allies in the United Network Command for Law Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) fighting against enemies of peace — but it's set up as an origin story. So, THRUSH isn't yet named, and the need for gender balance means that Gaby (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic, is included in the action.
The basic plot is quite standard, introducing the suave, facile American to the mercurial Russian brute with an extended chase and washroom brawl (a peculiar trajectory that presumably mirrors physical violence with homosexual lust) before elaborating on a mission to thwart the megalomaniacal, nuclear efforts of an underground criminal organization led by socialite and heiress Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki). As expected, the pair struggle to get along, which is exacerbated by the presence of Gaby, whose quiet flirtations with Ilya only thinly mask a potential sidebar agenda. The comedy is intended to stem from the constant bickering — Ilya uses his brawn and Napoleon his brain — while the costumes and the intermittent chase scenes are intended to engage the audience viscerally and aesthetically.
Unfortunately, the tone never quite finds a balance. In part, this is a flaw in the basic design of U.N.C.L.E.; each character is presented as a broad archetype with only the most superficial of signifiers to establish a dynamic. Ilya repeatedly attempts to subdue his propensity for violence and Napoleon prances around with a smirk, occasionally trying to bet hotel managers. Worse is that Gaby mostly just complains before inexplicably making moves at Ilya — no tension or chemistry is established amidst the three, chiefly because Ritchie's cold, thoughtless direction never captures the human element of any given moment. Even their broad idiosyncrasies aren't exploited for comedic or dramatic effect, typically being relegated to one-liners that never hit home and don't help propel the story forward or define the characters.
What's evident from the outset is that Ritchie is preoccupied with the style and feel of individual shots rather than considering them as a reiteration of the style or theme of the film. Often, a stylistic device, such as a zoom or a deliberately obstructed view, doesn't really make any sense from an emotional or thematic perspective; there's no clear visual distinction of what feeling any given scene is intended to inspire, Since many of his movies are merely shallow exercises in exposition and overly affected "cool," it works to a limited degree, but U.N.C.L.E. is making a decided effort to endear us to three characters and engage in their journey, which is an impossibility when we're never given any intimacy or guidance. In a way, this desultory, over-long box office bomb is a rather oxymoronic example of excess stylization accompanying a complete lack of framing and focus.
This leaves only exposition to propel the narrative forward, which is a problem when the basic story is so bland and uninspired. The twists are all entirely predictable and the themes almost non-existent. Perhaps there's some sort of propaganda in here about government factions collaborating to rid the world of corporate corruption, but even that's a bit of a stretch considering the blasé manner in which politics and socio-economic issues are handled here.
It's hard to suggest that a movie like U.N.C.L.E. holds a dialogue about greed when its only distinction (and one of the only things discussed passionately in the Blu-ray supplements) is the '60s wardrobe worn by the three characters.