Sunday, September 9, 2018
Spy Watch: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Format: Amazon Streaming
Sometimes you watch a movie and something about it just doesn't click with you. On the heels of Mission: Impossible - Fallout, we decided to take in Henry Cavill's last outing as a spy, a movie I'd just not felt compelled to watch previously, The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015). And, yeah, that was absolutely a stylish spy movie directed by Guy Ritchie.
I am aware that at some point in the 1960's, there was a TV show called The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and it had a certain lasting popularity. But I've literally never heard anyone in my presence refer to it, and I've never even seen it on in re-runs. All I ever knew about the show was that it launched the career of Robert Vaughn. This happens from time-to-time, where there's a pre-awareness, but it's sort of in the "I kinda feel like I heard that name before" not "Oh, let me tell you about all my favorite Star Trek moments" manner. Sure, there's likely some aging nerd out there who has made the show their life, but I've focused my life on other nerdly things.
Out of the gate - I'd have recommended they throw this particular script in the trash and start over. And suggest that maybe Guy Ritchie is not the world's strongest director, given that he was also deeply involved in producing and writing the movie according to the credits, and so we can't call "studio interference" on any of this.
Essentially the entire movie is a big set up for a franchise - which, we should have all learned by now - is a terrible idea. You get your sequels based on the strength of your first movie. So making this an "origin" story for the Man from UNCLE concept - whatever that might be - feels like two hours of people who don't want to be in the same room together (and, frankly, 2 of the three main characters are blank slates when they aren't being unpleasant).
When we finished watching Atomic Blonde, I had a similar response - oh, okay, that was a lot of triple and quadruple crossing, but I never cared about the first set up and characters, or the double-cross, so... I guess this isn't what I thought it was, so good job lying to me, then, movie... it IS a surprise when you get new information that changes what you previously saw. But it sure works a lot better when those reversals cause a reaction beyond "oh. Okay."
The movie stars the previously mentioned Henry Cavill, who is actually really pretty good in this movie. Had they just made a movie about this character maybe pulling together the other players organically, I might have been way more on board. While it's dumb and clumsy to essentially hand us his character's dossier and it would have been 10x better to show us his origin rather than tell us - or make this movie that story - I'd have been all in. Because unlike the world's most boring spy story they cooked up for this, he's engaging and that sounded cool as hell.
Poor, poor Armie Hammer. When it comes to getting a franchise off the ground, that guy can't get a break to save his life. Unfortunately, we're literally a full hour into the movie before I realized "oh - they think this is a buddy movie. Holy @#$%." Because Hammer basically feels like he's playing the same role Cavill was playing in M:I-F. He's kind of unfun and unpleasant as a character - someone needed to tell Ritchie and Hammer - silent guys with rage issues aren't funny or charming. You needed to find something else to do with the character. But, nope, he's a hero in this flick.
And rounding out the trio - we had Alicia Vikander, whose character was badly written, kinda superfluous to the mission and plot as stated until the big twist (which was my "oh. Okay." moment). And is still pretty useless afterwards. That's not her fault, necessarily - but I'm not sure she does much but stand around and look like she doesn't want to be there, never paying off on the sort of tough-girl way they used to introduce her. Ritchie seems convinced she and Hammer have white hot chemistry, and is insistent that somehow the embodiment of everything her character should loathe and fear also gets her hot and bothered despite the fact he seems like a sociopath. But, yeah, I guess she won awards for some movie along the way, and Hollywood made her Laura Croft in this summer's Tomb Raider reboot, really shouting her name from the rooftops, but... man. I dunno. She just never feels like she has much presence.
Which is a shame, because the major villain in the movie is played by another young woman, Elizabeth Debicki, who plays the cheesy spy villain perfectly and is the sort of presence that fills the screen just by showing up (she's also 6'3") and is the character you're sort of wanting to spend more time with. I like a good, over the top villain.
I just watched the movie and between the "ah-ha! This is what was really going on!" stuff that the Mission: Impossible movies actually do pretty well, and a wet rag of a nuclear football plot - I really don't remember what it was about. Stop someone from something with a bomb.
Frankly, it all feels like an excuse for Ritchie to indulge in a lot of hyper-stylized stuff that doesn't always make sense. Why is the score riffing on Spaghetti Western reverb guitar? Especially around our Russian? Why are the characters staying in the chic'est of hotels? Why is everyone constantly dressed in the height of fashion? And when it comes to editing - there's some frame breaking and whatnot he does that just doesn't necessarily feel that effective for as distracting as it is. And the tone is just all over the place - sometimes Roger Moore-esque light action adventure, and other times seems like spy melodrama.
And, weirdly, the action scenes just aren't that spectacular. In an era of Jason Bourne, Daniel Craig, Ethan Hunt and others creating some pretty remarkable scenes on film - short of a truck v boat sequence, it just feels like boilerplate stuff from the mid-90's.
Like I said - the movie didn't work for me. At all. I think it's odd that people seemed to like it as much as they did - but it isn't, like, offensive, I guess. I just didn't care about anything in the movie other than what Elizabeth Debicki was wearing.
I'm willing to hear arguments - and I do feel bad, because I think Jamie liked it a lot more than me, and I know I annoyed her by stopping the movie an hour in and basically saying "what the hell is this movie supposed to be?" - because I hadn't really sorted out what the movie thought it was... a comedy? an action drama? A buddy picture? A tense pairing of enemies? It was weird as hell. About that time, the movie actually turned a corner and I felt like I had my head around it a lot better, but that's a lot of time to spend with a movie feeling like "this could be a loooooot better than it is".