19 August, 2015

Le Homme de ONCLE

The Man From UNCLE (2015)
A Review by James Kislingbury

If you're a fan of spy movies, 2015 has been an embarrassment of riches. The year started strong with Kingsman: The SecretService, a film made by a former Guy Ritchie collaborator that had no right being as good as it was. Next up we have the uninteresting named Spy, staring Melissa McCarthy. After that up is the fifth Mission: Impossible film came out, which, like many of these films has a history going back decades. Then, of course in November we get an actual James Bond movie. Even Steven Spielberg is getting in on the action with Bridge of Spies, which, admittedly is a very different kind of spy movie than the rest. In a very good year for spy movies, The Man From UNCLE fails to stand out among its peers. In a bad year for spy movies it might not even do that.

The Man From UNCLE is a hard movie to screw up. In that way it reminds me of To Catch a Thief, which was probably one of the first movies sold to a director with the pitch "You'll get to spend three months in the French Riviera." Alfred was probably on the next flight to Nice. There seems to be that level of care put into The Man From UNCLE.

While To Catch a Thief has Cary Grant and Grace Kelly to make up for its flaccid script, The Man From UNCLE has Armie Hammer in a turtleneck and Rome. With resources like that, a movie can only be so bad. Yet, like Hitchcock's worst films, this movie fails to be anything more than good looking people in good looking clothes.

They don't even smoke in this movie, for God's sake. It's the 60's, damnit. Everyone smoked. The president smoked. The queen smoked. The pope probably smoked. But not here. Not even the villains!

The movie does deserve some kind of credit for making human beings look this good. I mean, it nails the hell out of that idea. Watching at Henry Cavill stand around in a suit makes me questions whether or not we're the same species. The same goes for Alicia Vikander who seems to have been born to wear mod pencil skirts. I wish better things would happen to these actors, because they're clearly talented. Between the obligatory action sequences these people almost appear, at many times, to be very interesting. Plus, one of the  bad guys looks like Jason Schwarzman in that one short film that Wes Anderson made. And then something explodes. And then we're assaulted with a bunch of split screens (which I can't tell if these are an affectation of the era or just of Guy Ritchie. . . Or an affectation that Guy Ritchie thinks is of the era). And that's basically it. It's a series of good looking things flashing on screen and sometimes those things explode. Writing this hurts me, because there is so much in this film that I want to like.

The Man From UNCLE's cardinal sin is what it does with the world its built. Which is to say it does nothing with the world its built. It's a catalog of cool things. It's a tale told by a disinterested director, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing. And I like looking at vintage catalogs, damnit. Considering that there's a Mission: Impossible film in theaters now, I have this funny feeling that if I wanted to see a film that was all surface, I might have better options.

Or, you know, I could watch a bad Hitchcock movie for way cheaper. In that case I would also be watching a movie that takes place in the 1960's and not one that just reminds me of the 1960's.

In between scenes of people eating fruit on yachts, there are a few moments that remind you that Guy Ritchie was once a promising, young film maker, far from the beaten down man you see today. The moment I'm thinking of is a dancing sequence. It's a single, still shot of Armie Hammer trying to play chess in the foreground and in the background and out of focus, Alicia Vikander is dancing. And that's it. She's just looking cool and dancing to a great song and that's it. That's the moment where all of the things Guy Ritchie may or may not be trying to do in this film all come together. It reminds you why movies are great. And then it ends. The movie moves on and you move on and that's all it was. A moment.

Also a Nazi accidentally catches fire at one point. That's good, too. More of that, please.

Knowing how strong Guy Ritchie started his career and knowing how hard it hit rock bottom, it's odd to see him in his third phase, which is making these massive blockbusters that, at their heart, are utterly void of any meaning or perspective. They're just kind of there. But with more slow mo. What's even more queer is that Matthew Vaughn (who produced Ritchie's first two films) made Kingsman this year. That's not a perfect film, it didn't put as many dollars on the screen as this movie, but damnit it had heart. It was trying. The Man From UNCLE isn't trying. It's satisified with where it is. As much as I might like going to movies to look at attractive people spying on one another, I don't like watching movies that play it safe.

Every once and a while, something wonderful slides into frame and you think “This might be it, this might be the moment when the movie turns around.” Then it doesn't. Instead, it gets loud and it gets big and some ugly things happen to some attractive people and then we're baited with a kind of cliffhanger for The Man From UNCLE 2: Because We All Have It Coming At This Point. And that's fine. In an atmosphere so full of spy movies (and so many good ones) and where the lingering scent of Mad Men is still in the air, The Man From UNCLE has to be more than just fine.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and an amateur expert on the great game. You can listen to his podcast here or subscribe to it on your favorite podcatcher. You can fund it here. Or not. Whatever.