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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Style wins out over substance in Guy Ritchie's playful reimagining of the popular '60s TV show.
By Tom Glasson
August 17, 2015
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By Tom Glasson
August 17, 2015
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Some films are just fun. They don’t have to be particularly good, and can even be so enjoyably bad as to become 'guilty pleasures'. Consider 2012’s Battleship. It’s an unbelievably stupid movie, so devoid of plot that the two-page instruction manual for the board game contains better exposition, but if it’s on, you can bet I’ll end up watching it.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is almost one of these films. It’s fun, definitely, but not quite enough to feel like it will satisfy the ‘re-watchability test'. Like Mission ImpossibleThe Man From U.N.C.L.E. is based on a '60s television spy series, and in fact owes several of its key characters to Ian Fleming (who only withdrew from production once EON became worried it might impact upon his Bond films). The concept revolved around two agents, one an American named Napoleon Solo (played here by Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill) and the other a Russian named Illya Kuryakin (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), who together took on the amusingly named T.H.R.U.S.H. Organisation.

The forced partnership of antipodes has often proved a fertile device in storytelling, from Lethal Weapon's pairing of a black cop with a white one in 1980s LA during a period of tense race relations to that of a male spy with a female one in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. The original Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, making the undercurrent of Cold War cooperation both radical and remarkably progressive, as well as contributing significantly to its combined critical and popular success.

Today, it carries a lot less weight, meaning The Man From U.N.C.L.E. feels particularly low in chemistry and tension, especially since the East/West clash is scarcely addressed. After some early (and excellent) bickering between Solo and Kuryakin, the unwilling companions never again wrangle over anything more substantial than the use of pet names for each other — ‘Cowboy' and 'Red Peril' — robbing the film of perhaps its only source of weighty antagonism.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is, of course, just the latest in a series of, well, series that have been adapted for the big screen, only in this case there are two key distinctions. For one, it remains in the era of its progenitor, meaning the film is every bit swinging '60s, with its swanky costumes and groovy soundtrack matched by direction from Guy Ritchie that makes frequent use of split screens and transition wipes.

Secondly, it’s not a parody. There are no in-jokes or tips of the hat to the original series, as per other recent offerings such as The A-Team21 Jump Street or Charlie’s Angels. That The Man From U.N.C.L.E. plays it straight makes for a refreshing change, but — just as was the case with 1998’s The Avengers and 2013’s The Lone Ranger — its attempt to recapture the charm of the original series unfortunately falls short of the mark, and its US-PG status renders it a particularly tame outing for someone like Ritchie at the helm. It feels more like Ritchie doing Soderbergh doing Mad Men, and while that may make it more child-friendly, it dulls the film for anyone who might actually remember the TV show.

The cast, too, while aesthetically perfect, somehow fails to quite hit the mark. Cavill looks and sounds impossibly smooth (think Patrick Bateman minus the psychosis), while Hammer sports a cartoonish Russian accent and plays it with all the charisma of a turnip. Alongside them, Alicia Vikander somehow feels absent despite loads of screen time, Australian Elizabeth Debicki has fun as the unflappable villain, and Hugh Grant puts in the film’s best performance, making his cameo a tempting substitute for the lead should the film ever actually progress to the sequel it unashamedly sets up at its close.

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