‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ Looking Good

There’s no question about it—life in the movies is so much better than real life. D’you ever notice how, in reality, things just go on and on and on; but in the movies everything gets wrapped up, the planet is saved and people are rewarded/punished as they should be. (As Oscar Wilde wrote: “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, that is what fiction means.”) In the movies people are pretty, their clothes are always neatly pressed and the locations are stunning. In real life people are barely presentable and the world, increasingly, looks like a giant strip mall.

I came of age in the mid-70’s so my memory might be false, but my impression of the previous decade was that of a time where grubby people spent a lot of time yelling at each other and everyone was so serious. Though I’ve been a trouble-making activist since I popped out of the womb, I’ve always been sort of glad that I missed the 60’s.

But I’ve just seen The Man from U.N.C.L.E and I’ve decided to make it my life’s work to get a degree in quantum physics so I can build a time machine and go back to 1962; yeah there’s a Cold War going on, evil Soviets out for the kill, unreconstructed Nazis hiding all over the place and American imperialism run amok … but this movie makes it all look fabulous!

The film is, of course, based on the 1960’s television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. starring Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum playing Illya Kuryakin. They were an American and Russian secret agents who, in the larger scheme of things, should have been fighting each other – but the concept of the show was that there was a secret international organization (T.H.R.U.S.H) so evil that the US and USSR formed U.N.C.L.E. to fight it with Solo and Kuryakin as the top spies. Kuryakin, secretive and intellectual, became famous – or rather McCallum — for the black turtlenecks he always wore and Solo was little more than a James Bond-styled smooth, womanizing agent … which is not surprising since Ian Fleming (the creator of Bond) had a hand in the creation of the show.

It seems inconceivable but somehow the Hollywood powers-that-be have allowed the TV series to go without a big budget remake until this year. (I bet somebody lost their job over that.) And so now we have the first installment of what is sure to be a new franchise directed by Guy Ritchie who, along with Lionel Wigram, wrote the script.

The plot’s pretty much what you’d expect; international intrigue, efficiently filmed car chases and a story which doesn’t really hold together upon closer inspection. What is interesting, however, is the villain. Since the word “thrush” has taken on a slightly different meaning since the 60’s, Ritchie and Wigram needed to come up with a villainous group so vile it would force the American and Soviet spies to work together. It turns out that Nazis are the answer to the problem. It seems that a bunch of them escaped Germany just in the nick of time and have now gotten their hands on the secret to the A-Bomb and they must be stopped! Boy, those Nazis really are nasty, aren’t they.

Beautiful People and Costumes

But Ritchie only wastes as much time on the story telling as is necessary to get from one set piece to the next. What he’s done, in spades!, is bring tone and glamour to the world of this movie – which should have been subtitled When Supermodels Ruled the Earth.

The leads are Henry Cavill (Solo) and Armie Hammer (Kuryakin) with Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki in supporting roles. They are so beautiful that at times it’s almost painful to look at the screen. The cleft in Cavill’s chin is as deep as the blue in Hammer’s eyes, Vikander and Debicki are decked out in some of the most glorious 60’s fashions and the Italian locations of the movie are picture postcard perfect. This cast is so phenomenal looking it’s almost impossible to tell if they’re any good at acting … with the exception of Debicki who plays the Nazi villainess with such suave evil and maniacal glee that she’s fantastically entertaining to watch.

From the beginning of his career (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) through the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock series, Ritchie’s direction is always notable for it’s hip/cool detachment, ironically presented violence and the teasing homoeroticism between his male characters. All of those elements are in full force here, especially the cool detachment with which he dispatches the material. His direction constantly reminding us— with impossible stunts, breathtaking vistas and camera tricks—that we are, in fact, watching a movie. Cavill’s performance, under Ritchie’s direction, is purposefully remote and sardonic, continually calling attention to itself as a performance. Even the costumes, designed by Joanna Johnston, are so visually stunning you never forget that you are, indeed, looking at costumes, rather than clothing.

Ritchie’s script wisely refuses to take itself too seriously and, without overreaching, manages to inject subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) humor into the film. The relationship between Cavill and Hammer is a curious one; at the beginning of the film (before the Nazis make their entrance) they’re trying to kill each other. But once they team up to fight those vile Third Reich-ers, they switch gears and their enmity develops into a bromance which (like in most Ritchie films) teeters closely into a courtship. I’m not sure it makes sense, but it’s certainly interesting to watch it unfold.

And because of his attention to all these details, Ritchie has made it all work—when the plot bogs down you can spend your time admiring the tailoring of Cavill’s bespoke suits; if the car chase is boring you can stare at Hammer’s impossibly white teeth. If you’ve given up trying to figure out who’s the goodies and the baddies, spend a few moments ogling Vikander’s groovy sunglasses or Debicki’s statuesque figure. And when you’ve run out of any of options, just sit and stare into the azure blue of the Mediterranean.

And that beats real life any day.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.