Guy Ritchie's new film is stylish, funny, thrilling, and oodles of fun. Unfortunately, its also a bit boring every now and then.
The latest film from director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is an action-comedy spy film set in the 60s, though it feels much more like an action film with a sense of humour than a true crossing of genres. When it’s good, it’s brilliant – slick, exciting, funny, cute, basically all the positive things a film can be – the only problem is that it can’t seem to keep that level of brilliance up throughout its two-hour run.
Based on the 1964 TV series of the same name, the film follows art-thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) begrudgingly teaming up with his KGB counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to foil the world-destroying schemes of a nefarious international criminal organisation made up of ex-Nazi scientists. In true Cold War spirit, the specifics of the plot involve everyone’s favourite weapons of mass destruction (nukes) and to top it all off, Solo and Kuryakin are joined by an East German car mechanic, Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is involved in the Nazi plot, but against his will.
The film starts with one of those moments of brilliance mentioned earlier – a ridiculously well put-together chase sequence through East German Berlin that’s filled to the brim with witty one-liners, cars doing cool things at high speed, a zip line escape over a minefield, and a man literally tearing a car apart. After this we slide smoothly into the business of setting up the plot and introducing the main characters.
It seems like a good point to mention that Cavill and Hammer are both excellent throughout the film: Cavill’s Solo is charming, funny, and collected, and he should be seriously considered as Daniel Craig’s replacement after Bond 25, while Hammer displays both the stereotypical brutishness of the KGB and a humanising tenderness with consummate ease. Whenever they’re together the two actors play off each other with a chemistry that is very fun to watch.
Alicia Vikander is, for the first half or so of the film, similarly on-form. She works well with her two co-stars and brings a kind of bubbly energy to the film that ties in well with its semi-light-hearted tone. She also nails what is undoubtedly the film’s funniest scene (the only scene in the film that is truly laugh-out-loud funny). However, Vikander, or rather the lack of her, is one of the film’s main problems. After dominating the first third to half of the film she is side-lined, going from one third of the team and being a properly fleshed out character to just being the equivalent of a Bond girl. Her character is also involved in a late-game twist that would have worked better had it been introduced earlier (doing this would also have solved the problem of her character suddenly not doing anything). This issue isn’t Vikander’s fault, it probably isn’t even Guy Ritchie’s fault, but rather something necessitated by the film’s almost lengthy run-time. Even so, it holds U.N.C.L.E. back big-time.
The film’s other problem is that when Cavill and Hammer aren’t together, or when there isn’t any action happening, it loses all pace, and even threatens to stop being funny or stylish. In short, it becomes dull. While this is mitigated by the fact that these moments are few and far between, they make the film drag, and make its reasonable two-hour length seem longer – there is a moment where it feels like the film might well finish, but then doesn’t, and at first that seems arduous. It ultimately wasn’t, because the film’s final few sequences are every bit as good as its first is, but that sense of boredom still looms.
Despite its flaws, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is still very much a fun, enjoyable film. You don’t come out of it regretting that you’ve watched it, but eager for more, particularly because the best part of the film is its three main characters. When it comes down to it, Guy Ritchie knows how to make a good action film, and that’s what this is. The only real problem with it is that every now and then it does something that makes you see just how fantastic it could have been.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), directed by Guy Ritchie, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros., Certificate 12A.