Tuesday, August 18, 2015

'Man from U.N.C.L.E.' Is Fun, Witty, Clever, and Never Boring


Instead of your regularly scheduled kids' content today, we're going to keep talking about recent movie releases because I saw two movies on Saturday and I don't really have anything pressing to talk about in terms of children's media. Good? Good.

In contrast with the suffocating misery I felt upon watching Fantastic Four, the second film of my double feature was actually really awesome. Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a witty, wry and genuinely enjoyable film, a worthy successor to the television show of the same name on which it was based. It's not particularly deep and it never tries to be anything more than a fun movie about silly spies, but it does everything it sets out to do very well, and I can appreciate that. In other words, it's exactly the movie that Fantastic Four isn't, and you'd probably like it.

If you're not familiar, Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a very popular television show in the early 1960s, a sort of spy thriller show with an interesting buddy cop element. Done in the vein of the Bond films and exactly the show that Get Smart was riffing on, Man from U.N.C.L.E. is clever but silly and always self-aware enough to keep the audience guessing and engaged.

The basic format of the show was this: while the United States and Soviet Union are locked in a battle for global supremacy, they're not the only threats to world peace. There are always extra-governmental organizations, extremists, and what we would now call terrorists threatening the globe. In order to keep us safe, the world formed U.N.C.L.E., a united covert task force that utilizes both American and Soviet agents to go after threats. Basically like if Interpol were for the whole world and had a lot of really cool gadgets and secret hideouts.

In the show we follow our two main characters, an American and a Soviet, obviously. The American, Napoleon Solo, is a womanizing cad who just so happens to be completely brilliant and a great fighter, while the Soviet, Illya Kuryakin, is a quiet killer who really likes science. Together they save the world a lot and bond in the process. Awww.

The film takes this basis and goes off script a little, but manages to stay very close to the source material in tone and spirit. Plus, it's honestly just a really good movie. It combines the best aspects of Kingsman and the recent Casino Royale to make a movie that's not as earnest as either of those films, but just as fun and very well made. It's like a bespoke suit made out of really nice fabric but with shoddy lining. It's still a great suit, but there's not much inside. At the end, though, we have a team of super spies ready to take on the world and some fantastic fun getting there. There are worse things in life.

So, instead of dropping us into a world where U.N.C.L.E. is already a thing, the film takes us on a more circuitous route. We meet our heroes in East Berlin as Napoleon Solo (here played by Henry Cavill) is going about his CIA spy business. He's there to contact a girl, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), about her father and to help her get out of Soviet controlled East Berlin. Meanwhile, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is there to stop him. Hilarity and really good set pieces ensue.

While Napoleon is ultimately successful in rescuing Gaby, in the end it doesn't matter. It turns out that the CIA and KGB are teaming up forces for this case - Gaby's father is a much bigger deal than any of them anticipated. 

Gaby's father, a brilliant rocket scientist, has been kidnapped by neo-Nazis who want him to build them a new kind of targeted and guided nuclear bomb. They need Gaby's help to get close to her uncle who in turn has gotten close to the people they think are holding her father. And they also need Illya to come along too. Oh joy.

This means that our intrepid heroes for this film are an oddball bunch of weirdos from all over Europe (and America). Gaby was a car mechanic before they uprooted her and possesses the general social graces of a very angry badger, while Napoleon is an art thief working off his sentence by becoming a spy for the CIA*, and Illya is a mass of staggering rage issues and mild psychosis. Obviously they all get along just great.

Actually, they do get along just great, or at least their not getting along is absolutely hilarious. I could explain what actually happens in the movie, but it turns out that this film is not one defined by its plot. I mean, it has a plot. It has a pretty decent plot, all things considered. But that's not why I liked it. I liked it because the characters are amazing and they interact in such lifelike and compelling ways, even when they're being nuts.

Like, one of the best scenes in the whole film is where Napoleon and Illya, having just learned about their assignment, are trying to buy Gaby some clothes. She doesn't have anything with her, after all, since she was hustled out of East Germany in the middle of the night and besides she needs fancy clothes for spying stuff. Illya has just broken the news about how for this mission he and Gaby will be pretending to be engaged, and Gaby has not taken it well. Which is reasonable since she just left the Iron Curtain and now she has to pretend to be in love with a KGB agent.

What ensues is a part dick-measuring contest between two spies who have battled each other to a draw so far, part intense debate over who will get to woo Gaby, but mostly a literal argument over who knows more about women's fashion. I'm not kidding. It's a five minute scene of Napoleon and Illya getting more and more angry with each other about who can match a belt with a dress in the right manner and what fashion laws should be broken and what ones shouldn't and it's great. Meanwhile, Gaby is in the background actually getting stuff she likes, because that's what really matters, and the whole dynamic of the film is laid out right there. It's phenomenal.

Even better, this is not the only amazing character sequence like that. There's a hilarious scene where they all realize that Illya and Gaby are about to be mugged. The mugging is a test so that Gaby's uncle, a very supsicious character, can see that his niece's new fiance is not actually a Soviet spy. Because what kind of self-respecting Soviet spy lets himself get mugged? And that means that Illya, he of the staggering rage issues and violent impulses, has to actually let himself be threatened by incompetent muggers. He does, and it's a really compelling scene both because it's funny and because it tells us a lot about who Illya actually is.

There's a scene where Illya and Gaby are trapped in a hotel room together and have to work out their differences. Which they do, if by "work out their differences" you mean "Gaby tricks Illya into slapping himself multiple times". And I do mean that.

There's another scene where Illya and Napoleon have to make a quick getaway by boat but get trapped in a small harbor and Napoleon falls overboard. While in the background we see Illya's powerboat being chased in circles by the bad guys' boat, gunfire spraying everywhere, in the foreground we watch Napoleon swim to shore, find a truck with the keys in it, find a lunch, eat the lunch, and generally laze around until he figures, yeah, he should probably save his partner now.

I could keep going, which is a great feeling, but I won't. I just need you to know that this movie gets it. It understands how to walk that fine line between an action movie with a lot of really great set pieces and a lot of interesting character development. All of our leads have a strong character arc throughout the piece, and while most of it is basically "loner learns to work with team", that's okay. That's a good story arc in itself.

My one complaint is that it feels like the writers didn't quite know what to do with Gaby in the third act. I mean, she's an amazing character throughout the film, but the third act found her sort of shoved to the side and rather damseled. And that's annoying because up until then she was definitely holding her own in the story. It's also frustrating because the climax of the film is a car chase, and Gaby is a car mechanic, but somehow they find nothing for her to do but sit in a car and be scared. Lame.

Plus, the romance they put in the film for her feels a little disingenuous. It's not that I doubt that Gaby is attracted to Illya - no one is confused about that, and Illya isn't hard on the eyes - it's that it's hard to swallow her being just into him. The plot claims she's very much into Illya, but she also seems to be into Napoleon as well. And he and Illya make a lot of eyes at each other. Since the heart of the film revolves around the three of them as a unit, it felt kind of irritating for the writers to pull us back into this staged romance. Like they were worried we'd get confused and stop caring about romance if the two pretty white people didn't look like they wanted to kiss.

And I do have another complaint: this movie is exceptionally white. Not just a little white, I would classify this film as hella white. I don't remember seeing a single person of color in the whole film, which is ridiculous. It's set in Europe in the 1960s. I'm pretty sure that black people had been invented.

But those are really my only issues with the movie. Otherwise I found it to be honestly like a breath of fresh air. Which is a weird way to describe a remake of a Cold War property, I know. But it's true. For all that Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn't a new story, it feels new. Maybe it's Guy Ritchie's really good directing. Maybe it's the actors clearly having a ball. Maybe it's just that it's a movie that's not taking itself seriously or seeming to try to build a massive franchise. It's just a fun movie that you'd probably like. I could do with more of those.

It's a little hard to figure out what else there is to say, actually. Like I said above, this is not a deep movie. There is a plot but it's a very basic, very retro "bad guys want to end the world because they're Nazis" kind of deal. No one we're supposed to like ends up having a particularly complex motivation, the plot really only has one twist and that one is cool but not revolutionary, and for the most part you just get to enjoy a fun movie. 

Like, there's this other scene where Napoleon has been drugged by the villain and knows it, so while the villain is monologuing he just wanders around their office gathering pillows and lies down because as he explains, last time he was drugged he fell down and got a cut and ruined his suit, so he's taking preventative measures. It's crap like that. 

The acting is phenomenal, with the leads all clearly giving it their all** and the supporting actors not leaving any slack either. Elizabeth Debicki is in full Bond villain form and I love it, Hugh Grant gets an excellent turn as a spy master undercover as a businessman. Admittedly, Jared Harris' American accent is kind of absolutely horrible to listen to, but it's pretty brief. It really feels like everyone involved in this brought their A-game, which is an awesome feeling.

It's a weird situation to find myself in, but I have to say that the complete lack of any agenda behind Man from U.N.C.L.E. is really quite refreshing. Normally I'm all on board the "movies must have a deep meaning" bus, but I also don't require my films to push it. If the deepest meaning in this movie is that we need to see past people's outer ideologies and circumstances so that we can know them as human beings, then that's not bad at all. By the end of the movie, (barest of spoilers), Illya and Napoleon and Gaby are real and true friends. Friends who argue a lot and try to kill each other, but friends. And I'll take that. I really will.


*And, yes, the comparisons between Napoleon Solo and Neal Caffrey are hard to miss. I mean, it's complicated by the fact that Napoleon Solo was a pre-existing character, but the physical resemblance between Henry Cavill and Matt Bomber is startling. 

**Yes, even Armie Hammer, he of the really questionable film history, does an excellent job. I feel like his problem is not that he's a good actor - he clearly is - but that casting directors have no idea what to do with him. Besides, it's not his fault that The Lone Ranger was so insultingly terrible.

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