The Man from U.N.C.L.E. full movie review - Wasted Potential
In The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Russian Ryan Gosling and German Jennifer Lawrence team up with Superman to save the world or something.
I struggled to phrase that because the plot is never established properly. There are Neo-Nazis building a bomb? Okay, I suppose that's self-evidently threatening, but we're never told exactly what their plan is. Nor is there a clear villain, which goes a long way to explaining why the ending to this film felt so devoid of tension or significance.
Not that the villains are the only ones to suffer from inadequate characterisation - we're given the "suave" American spy and his ultra-serious, literal-minded Russian partner in a reluctant marriage of convenience. The characters lack any depth - it's as if the audience is served up this partnership and told "You know how this dynamic works, just go with it - it's a recipe for great action and comedy gold, right?"
Well, I can accept paper-thin characters operating within a paper-thin dynamic to serve the purposes of a movie solely focused on action, sure. But despite the promise of its brilliant opening, very little of U.N.C.L.E. is actually taken up with action. I get the feeling this was intended to be a real character piece - after all, this is the first of a new franchise, so subordinating action to character establishment would be perfectly reasonable. But as a character movie, this fails; it's not simply that the characters and their relationships lack depth - they're not particularly likable either.
Henry Cavill plays Solo, supposed to be like old-school Bond - and I welcome this, especially as the actual Bond films have become very serious and dark lately. But Solo just comes across as a perfect example of what we Brits call a "wanker", with no charm whatsoever. I felt the same way towards Robert Downey Junior's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the films also directed by Ritchie - no charm, just know-it-all American swagger. If you consider the characters portrayed by Jason Statham in Ritchie's Lock Stock and Snatch, or Gerard Butler in RocknRolla, they have the same relentless self-confidence - but their characters are flawed and really quite dumb, which makes them endearing and human. Instead Solo is just a perfect super-agent.
His Russian counterpart Illya is very much a stock character, precisely what you expect as the super-serious counterpoint to Solo's swagger. Aside from a brief mention of his childhood - basically designed to answer the question "Why does Illya like hitting people?" - his character is given little development. I'll reiterate - this would be fine if the film spent most of its time on action, but this isn't the case. Illya is also given a deliberately awkward romance. I'm not sure why this was inserted into the film except to create some combination of comedy and sexual tension. A love-triangle between Solo, Illya and Gaby would have been more interesting; this would have created more tension and also more fully integrated the story lines and characterisations of the three protagonists - as it is, the film features two effectively separate relationships (Solo-Illya and Illya-Gaby).
I feel bad writing this review, because I love Guy Ritchie; Snatch and Lock Stock are two of my favourite films. U.N.C.L.E. did have some typical Guy Ritchie tropes ? great stylised action and the integration of the soundtrack is masterful as ever. I was glad to see these elements, as I felt Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films felt too conventionally directed, lacking experimentation or inventiveness. But in U.N.C.L.E., you get the feeling Ritchie hasn't really been let off the leash, and he and the other 3 screenwriters have certainly tried to compromise between his stylised masterpieces and the requirements of the increasingly homogenised blockbuster. That's understandable - but I think the biggest disappointment of this film is its squandered potential. I'll give three examples.
Setting: The opening takes place in East Germany and, along with a fantastic montage documenting the polarisation of world politics, it really sets the Cold War tone. Unfortunately, the film mostly takes place in Italy, and the Cold War is barely referenced. What a waste! If you want a Russian and an American spy in an uneasy working relationship, you could have had it in the modern day. The recent Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy film did an excellent job of exploiting the Cold War setting for tension and tone - if only U.N.C.L.E. remained in Germany.
Action: There's not enough of it. As discussed, the protagonists are too weak to make this a character piece. Nor does the plot contain any sort of mystery or suspense - when the agents briefed, they're told exactly what to do. They don't have to discover anything; basically they've just got to take out the generic movie doomsday device. This is acceptable if it sets up an action romp. Unfortunately, whilst the action is great whenever it does occur, the vast majority of this film is spent in what we Brits call "faffing around".
Characters: Solo is meant to be a former post-war black-market profiteer serving the CIA to escape his prison sentence. Clearly there's great potential here - it would have been interesting to see Solo chafing against his superiors or employing his "maverick" qualities. But he never disobeys orders and once on his mission, his superiors largely leave him to it - and as for his unorthodox past, he never puts to use any of his unique skills or knowledge. This was the whole reason he was recruited, right? I don't see him doing much different to a regular spy. Although I guess Henry Cavill can hide gadgets or weapons or getaway vehicles inside his chin.
Not terrible overall - it's just too slow, too shallow and sometimes too safe - I really think a younger, unencumbered Ritchie could have made a spy film 10 times funnier, cooler and more exciting than this.