If the Stage Collapsed Under a Jazz Masterpiece Every 12 Minutes — “The Man from UNCLE”

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in The Man from UNCLE
Cavill Hammer would be a good name for a kid. If you name your child Cavill Hammer, please include a link back here.

I was hoping for one last triumphant popcorn flick on the way out of summer. At first, The Man from UNCLE seems to fit the bill. Based loosely on the 1960s TV show, it opens with enough style and energy to jump off the screen. I can’t count the number of times the planet’s been threatened this summer, and a playful riff on 60s spy movies should feel as light and airy as The Man From UNCLE starts.

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are both after the same quarry: a defecting East German car mechanic who’s also the daughter of a missing, ex-Nazi rocket scientist. The opening is everything you think the movie could possibly be. It zips along with a unique flair, cutting back and forth in time so you can understand each operative a little better. It works like jazz, its rhythm alternating between tight and loose in a call-and-response way. It’s a beautifully orchestrated opening sequence.

If you want more of that quirky, high-energy, stylish action then The Man from UNCLE is where you’re going to find it…once in a while. The film never goes straight downhill, but it does run up and down that hill faster than you can keep up. Brilliant comedic moments are interspersed with banter scenes that fall flat. The passive-aggressive competition between Solo and Kuryakin is realized wonderfully during a heist sequence but never revisited again. The daughter who joins them on their mission, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), has to mediate their competitive nature, which takes her into serious territory. With three comedic straight-men and no foil, it’s up to the film itself to invent comic interplay. When it’s there, it sings, but when it’s not, it’s like the jazz goes horrendously off-tune and you wonder if the trombonist just had a heart attack.

Alicia Vikander in The Man from UNCLE
The costume design is insanely good, by the way.

The Man from UNCLE has style to spare, a clever way of editing, a sharp sense of humor, energetic action, and three leads each more talented and charming than the last, but it doesn’t rely on any of these things long enough to create a consistent theme.

Is the point of the movie to be stylish? It forgets to be for long stretches of time. Is it to cleverly edit story in nonlinear ways that keep us hopping back and forth between expectations and reveals? The same energy isn’t put into its linear scenes; they fall flat by comparison.

Is the point of the film its wicked humor? Then why do we get a torture scene near the end where the torturer proceeds to tell us how he experimented on concentration camp prisoners? That’s a mood-killer in a comedy if ever there was one.

Why is each character introduced as a scenery-chewing joy only to devolve into a dour monument to solemnity by the end?

Why is the action joyfully cartoonish at the beginning and self-consciously gritty by the end? Did a producer pass by and think, “Yes, this bright, cartoonish 60s romp needs more Dark Knight in it?”

If nothing else, The Man from UNCLE reminds you of the value of Robert Downey Jr. Downey starred in both of director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. They shared similar tonal shifts, although the mysteries at their core were far tighter. Both Holmes movies shared the same grinding halts to deliver bland expository dialogue in between frenetic action scenes. The difference between Downey, Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace seizing on each others’ Victorian lines, versus Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander never finding their rhythm together in the 60s is night and day. Elizabeth Debicki, as the villain Victoria, is the only one really keeping things lively by the end.

Elizabeth Debicki in The Man from UNCLE
It’s not a ’60s spy movie until somebody jabs somebody else with a needle.

That’s a lot of flaws for something I ultimately did enjoy, and The Man from UNCLE also suffers from arriving on the heels of the surprisingly better, funnier, and even more stylish Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. As spy movies go, there’s an all-time great in the theater right now and then there’s a pretty good one in The Man from UNCLE.

The Man from UNCLE is as enjoyable as anything this year when its comedy and style hit. You just have to bear with the moments when it takes far too long to find its mark. These are enjoyable actors to watch, even when they’re all playing dry wit at the same time. If you’re looking for a spy movie or action comedy, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the far better bet, and more specifically takes advantage of the big screen. If you’ve already seen that or you just don’t like Tom Cruise, The Man from UNCLE is a solid bet if you’re patient with it. It does boast some of the best music of any film this year.

(This was written before my American Ultra review. Whether you like that or The Man from UNCLE better is a matter of taste. Check out my American Ultra review, and my Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation review while making your spy movie choices. Or just do a triple-feature.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Man From UNCLE have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby. Elizabeth Debicki plays the villain Victoria. They are unnamed, but other speaking roles include Simona Caparrini as a Contessa, and Marianna Di Martino as a desk clerk.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes. Nuclear weapons and nefarious plots are the order of the day.

It’s better balanced than the industry usually is, but The Man from UNCLE isn’t exactly equal opportunity. The two men are the central characters, and Vikander is sexualized in a way Cavill and Hammer aren’t.

The film’s world of espionage is also dominated by male side characters. While it may or may not reflect the gender balance in 1960s spy circles realistically, nothing else about this movie is realistic. The world created here would have benefited from women in more of the roles supporting these core four actors (Cavill, Debicki, Hammer, Vikander).

Debicki plays a villain who’s very in control of her sexual life. Unfortunately, that is used as a villainous trait at one point. We often see that kind of control over one’s sexual life in women villains, not women heroes, and The Man from UNCLE is no different. As her counterpart on the good guys, Vikander’s sexuality is treated in a more innocent, ingenue-like manner.

Insane style in The Man from UNCLE
Everyone’s treating everyone else like adults, even if they’re shooting at each other.

Thankfully, everyone’s sexual exploits are treated as their own decisions. We steer clear of any Roger Moore-era James Bond sexual assaults (or recent Daniel Craig, for that matter). For the amount of double-crosses at play and the centrality of sex at different points in the film, The Man from UNCLE is very conscious and specific about characters treating each other in careful and respectful ways when it comes to sex.

The film’s not perfect, but it does some things better than much of the spy genre. That said, the genre itself is still housed in some antiquated mores of gender roles, and The Man from UNCLE uses some of these in its storytelling.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from The Mary Sue review. The image of Cavill and Hammer is from the Forbes review. The images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki are from a fashion article on The Telegraph. The image of Cavill and Debicki on a sofa are from a People trailer article.

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