The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
based on the television show
2015 • 116 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures
I was tentative about Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Or, to be more accurate, I could scent the weariness coming at it from all corners—yet another film version of a beloved sixties television show? Yet another movie about two white guys in suits (or, as Noelle Stevenson hilariously put it, two Michael Fassbenders)? Yet another stylish but hollow Guy Ritchie action movie? It was so pervasive that I felt awkward about being excited for it. No matter how excited my lizard brain was for pretty clothes and explosions and cuties of all genders, I started to feel certain that I was going to enjoy ninety percent of the film and rage over the remaining ten percent.
But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. surprised me. It nimbly leaps over the low bar of not actively offending human sensibilities by treating its female characters like people and failing to include anything along the lines of Robert Downey Jr. in yellowface in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Of course, there’s only two major female characters and the latter is achieved by a complete dearth of people of color, so that’s certainly an issue. The reason we keep the bar that low is because media still continues to fail it, and it is important to point out how texts fail that bar, even when we enjoy them.
Because, dear readers, I enjoyed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I enjoyed it a lot. I left the theater buzzing, feeling a little drunk off its good vibes, because it’s really the perfect kind of movie to come out at the tail end of the summer—a stylish, light, and fun action comedy.
Yes, a comedy, to what I can only assume is the neutral response of the original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fandom. I’ve never seen the original show, although I have heard tales during my regular forays into fandom history, but I imagine that the original fandom’s enjoyment of this film will largely be predicated on how generous they can feel towards a film that looks at their beloved Illya Kuryakin and decides to overhaul his mysterious, thoughtful character in the service of the comic potential of a hulking Russian with rage issues.
I would be indignant on their behalf, except that… it’s actually really funny. By the third time Illya’s eyes flare with scare chords as accompaniment, I lost it. It’s deeply refreshing to see a comedy aimed squarely at adults that doesn’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the script, cast improv, and swearing. (I mean, there’s double entendres seven ways to Sunday, but barely a swear word.) There are zany sight gags, rhythmic action sequences, a character silencing the score with one imperious hand, and plenty of good-natured snark, as Henry Cavill’s arch Solo and Armie Hammer’s Illya snipe at each other nonstop. A set piece involving a boat chase, a truck, and a picnic lunch is particularly inspired. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never feels desperate; it trusts that its supremely good vibes (aided considerably by Daniel Pemberton’s decidedly hip score) are more than enough to keep you interested.
It also trusts that you’ll like these characters enough to watch them jaunt all over 1960s Italy. While Solo and Illya come prefab as both characters and as a dynamic duo, Gaby Teller is a completely new character to the universe of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (The Uncleverse?) And I adore her. She’s a scrappy, pragmatic East German mechanic whose powers of awareness belie her casual exterior. (Peak Gaby: drinking out of a decidedly non-drinking fountain at the Spanish Steps in a gorgeous dress while pointing out holes in Illya’s logic.) Nothing escapes her, even when she’s acting out. Alicia Vikander imbues her with an almost careless charisma that makes her both magnetic and endearing.
Case in point: the best and most fascinating scene in this movie isn’t an elaborate action sequence, but character work. It’s a four minute scene where Gaby and Illya go from putting up with each other to realizing that they really, really like each other while also destroying their hotel room. It’s so fleet, efficient, and heartwarming that just thinking about days later makes me happy. Gaby dancing in her pajamas! Gaby tricking Illya into slapping himself! Illya tucking a passed out Gaby in bed with stars in his eyes! Their romance is, honestly, one of my favorites of the year. Illya tackles everything that comes his way with a scowl and the force and subtlety of a freight train, but his soft spot for Gaby is a mile wide. (Illya goes from clubbing a man in the face with a motorcycle to tenderly scooping up an injured Gaby in almost a heartbeat.) Despite their almost comical size difference, Gaby is never afraid of Illya. In fact, the film even goes out of its way to visually put Gaby and Illya on the same level for a series of near-kisses, even if it has to put her on a table or tilt the camera. And the movie never throws anything like a love triangle at them, trusting solely in awful timing to create tension.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does have its problems but, besides from the glaring omission of any people of color in the film (what planet is this?), they’re largely technical. The third act feels soggy compared to the zippy first two, although kudos to Ritchie for including an ATV chase sequence. It doesn’t quite work, but I admire the impulse. The third act also sidelines Gaby, despite the story being all about her family. But I was most puzzled by how the film never really conveys the sense that Solo and Illya enjoy spending time together. All the beats are there, but it still feels like something crucial is missing. I’m not sure if the film is resting on the foundation of the television show or that I, as a consumer of Western film, am supposed to be groomed to assume that two white guys thrown together in a movie will become fast friends. It’s an odd omission for a film based on a show that was so much about that partnership.
(How did I write this entire thing without mentioning Elizabeth Debicki as the villain? She needed much more screen time, but she was wonderful.)
I saw this film in theaters.