Monday, August 17, 2015

Man From U.N.C.L.E.

First, a disclaimer. That title is the last time I'm going to type out all those damn periods.

Short version: Booyah. That movie was, I think, exactly what it wanted to be. It is not a tightly plotted thriller. It is not high-octane action. It is not grim and gritty. It is a fun, light-hearted romp through the over-the-top world of super-spies. It is vintage Guy Ritchie (though thankfully toned down on the violence and language). Cavill and Hammer were perfect in their roles, and Vikander was wonderful as well. It's not a movie that will make you think, but it is one that will make you laugh.

The super spy market lately has certainly been dominated by earnestness. Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and even the one-time king of camp James Bond are all engaged in Very Serious Business. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the super hero genre has dominated the niche of bright colors and witty one-liners paired with jaw-dropping action. The Man from UNCLE made a very conscious decision to break from that pattern.

Napoleon Solo is a brilliant ex-soldier, ex-thief who has been blackmailed into becoming a brilliant CIA agent. Illya Kuryakin is a one-man wrecking crew for the KGB, desperate to wipe away the shame of his father's actions. Gaby is an innocent but brilliant mechanic in East Berlin who gets swept up in international espionage when it is revealed that her long-missing father invented a new way of enriching uranium that can put the atomic bomb in the hands of any group in the world. When it is revealed that both the CIA and KGB have identified that a group of Italian fascists have created just such a bomb, an alliance must be forged between Solo and Kuryakin. An alliance in which each has orders to kill the other if they get in the way.

Henry Cavill is fabulous as the suave gentleman burglar. Ritchie knows how to highlight his looks to the point that he is almost too handsome to look at in certain scenes. He is always composed, and moves with a grace that makes you believe in his abilities. He also has a delightful amorality that borders on the sociopathic, frequently filling the role of "amiable asshole".

Armie Hammer has had an interesting career of late. It looked like his turn as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network would put him on the fast track. Then his turn as The Lone Ranger threatened to derail that career (through no real fault of his, admittedly). I think that Kuryakin may just turn things back around. He spends most of the movie with his eyes just a little too wide, his jaw tightly clenched, and poised for action. It is a collection of subtle cues that shout "psychopath". But he manages to also be convincingly human, displaying softness and pride between fits of rage.

Alicia Vikander is best known to me from the amazingly disturbing Ex Machina. I didn't even recognize her in this role. She is smooth, strong, smart, and sassy. And in one particularly memorable scene, a hell of a dancer.

There were so many pleasing elements to this movie. The twist that brings the second act to a close is both thoroughly unexpected and fits perfectly with what has come before. The competition between Solo and Kuryakin is fun and nicely balanced, with each making the other look like an incompetent in turn. The bad guys twirl their mustaches and give great villainous laughs (because that's about standards, people). But mostly Ritchie manages to very deftly give us a constant stream of comedic moments without either breaking the fourth wall or forgetting what the plot actually is.

Was it perfect? Well, of course not. The plot is threadbare thin. And Ritchie's love of shaky-cam and quick cuts makes several action scenes super confusing and the big car chase nausea-inducing. But pretty much from the moment they got across the Berlin Wall, I was ready to forgive a LOT.

How does the movie rank from the feminist perspective? Given that it is set in the swingin' 60s, not too badly. I would have to watch again to see if Gaby and Victoria actually have an on-screen conversation, but I *think* they do. So it might pass the Bechdel Test, but clearly not by more than a technicality. However, it does pass the Mako Mori Test with flying colors. Gaby is neither a delicate flower nor a femme fatale, holding her own with the boys at every turn without having her sexuality be more than a passing note. Unfortunately, she does end up as a damsel in distress, requiring her two white knights to ride to her rescue, which blunts the impact a bit. It is a bit redeemed when she is the one who figures out how to get the bad guys in the end. Victoria, on the other hand, is a delicious femme fatale. She is smart, powerful, sexy, and entirely her own woman. If she wasn't quite so cliche (and quite so evil), she might just be the much sought after "strong female character" herself.

In conclusion, go see this movie. You will have a grand time. It is just wall to wall fun. It probably doesn't need the big screen, but the visuals are definitely better.

It will be interesting in a few months' time to do a comparison of this, MI: Rogue Nation, and Spectre. Right now, it's looking like a clear spectrum from fun to grim.

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