British director Guy Richie has lost his way of late. I appreciated his attempt to inject the “Sherlock Holmes” story with adrenaline, making Holmes (played by Robert Downy Jr.) into an action hero. Though I still found myself caring more about Holmes as a genius detective, unraveling complex mysteries than whether he could beat someone up or use a gun. So, while I liked 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” it also turned into another tedious action movie. Its sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was more of the same: more cheeky Downy Jr., more repetitive action and an uninspired storyline.
The slick, Cold War era spy throwback “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (based on the T.V show) reinvigorates Richie’s career. He still directs with his trademark kinetic style and sense of cool but this time action and coolness take a back seat to character. The movie is still very cool but that style wouldn’t matter much if the central spy duo (played by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer) weren’t strong.
With perfect skin, neatly combed hair and a rich, soothing voice you could listen to for hours, Cavill plays ultra suave American spy Solo. Cavill’s performance is basically the polar opposite of his brooding self-serious turn in “Man of Steel.” Cavill displays near perfect comedic timing and exudes charisma in every scene. Solo handles just about every situation with wit and grace, practically strutting from one scene to the next. Even when he’s strapped into an electric chair about to be experimented on by an ex Nazi surgeon he retains a level of cool. In the span of just two movies Cavill demonstrates impressive range. Who knew the bland Superman actor could be so smooth and funny.
Meanwhile (sporting a thick Russian accent) Hammer plays the intense Soviet spy Illya. He’s an intimating six feet five inches and, in the words of another character, “built like a power lifter.” Illya isn’t someone you’d want to get cornered by in a dark alley. Even Solo is a little taken aback by his presence at first; “he ripped the back off my car!” he exclaims in puzzlement after Illya chases him down a dark Berlin street on foot like the T-1000 from “Terminator 2.” Though Hammer also gets to be playful and charming. For example, when German mechanic and fellow spy Gabby (Alicia Vikander) is trying on clothes to go undercover as his wife, Illya intervenes, claiming that a Soviet wife wouldn’t wear the clothes she’d tried on and proceeds to pick out the outfit for her. Hammer hasn’t done much of note since his duel performance as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network.” Here, he gives his first accomplished leading performance.
Together Cavill and Hammer are immaculate, playing off each other wonderfully and giving the movie balance. We don’t want too much of the suave agent, just as we don’t want too much of the menacing one. Richie keeps the focus of the picture on their turbulent, banter-ey dynamic. As enemy spies being forced to work together Solo and Illya are constantly trying to one up each other-- putting mini tracking devices in each other’s stuff or seeing who has the best gadget to cut through a chain-link fence to sneak into a top secret facility. At the same time, through their begrudging rivalry, we begin see a common understanding between them that makes Solo and Illya into an effective team. They’re both talented at what they do and acknowledge their status as puppets in a war between two major countries. The nationalistic tension still exists but there’s a mutual respect.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about “U.N.C.L.E.” is the action and how little there is. Both “Sherlock Holmes” features were full of relentless, nonstop action but in “U.N.C.L.E.” the action is used sparingly and effectively. There are only about five major action set pieces that are well spaced throughout the movie’s one hundred and sixteen minute running time. And they play second fiddle to the Hammer/Cavill relationship, instead of being the focal point of the film.
On top of that, Richie finds new and clever ways to capture the action. Boat chases have become such a tired cliché in action cinema; in “U.N.C.L.E.” however, Richie stages his boat chase from Solo’s perspective as he sits in a truck, watching Illya fend for himself on the water. The song “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera” by Peppino Gagliardi plays on the truck radio in the background. The sequence is funny and the change in perspective makes it fresh and exciting. We also see innovation in Richie’s handling of the nighttime raid on a small island. What could be a generic, fifteen-minute raid sequence is turned into a brief five-minute montage using split screen (sometimes the screen is divided in up to eight small segments). Again, Richie makes this standard action scene feel new and makes good use of the tacky split screen device.
Also worth singling out is the lively and diverse soundtrack. In addition to using existing songs from the time period, Daniel Pemberton’s original score pays homage to the old school orchestral spy scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin, as well as other cinematic legends like Ennio Morricone. The score is a crucial component-- enhancing the action and strengthening the film’s fun, chic 1960’s atmosphere.
The actual plot of “U.N.C.L.E.” involving Nazis, nuclear warheads and the retrieval of yet another flash disk, is slight but the movie is light on its feet and the attention to character is so strong that it doesn’t matter much. The only major flaw in Richie’s movie is that Alicia Vikander is underused. Vikander is another rising star that has been on a roll this year (in movies as diverse as “Ex Machina” and “The Testament of Youth”). While Gaby certainly isn’t weak, she’s forced to be a third wheel to Solo and Illya. Vikander still gets to be funny and sexy but the character doesn’t play as prominent a part as our two male spies.
Even so, “The Man From “U.N.C.L.E.” is smart, funny, stylish character driven picture. There’s just enough action to keep things from feeling repetitive or draining. It’s Guy Richie’s best film since “Snatch” and it showcases the immense talents of three up and comers. I’ll be curious to see how the film does at the box office. I don’t think there’s much interest (among young movie-goers) in a “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” movie and the marketing makes it look like yet another generic action heavy spectacle.