It might be tempting to spend the night with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—it’s attractive, stylish and has a great soundtrack—but the experience won’t satisfy you. This slapdash movie throws its scrambled narrative into your lap and expects you to do all of the work to figure it out. Neither director Guy Ritchie nor cowriter Lionel Wigram seem to care if you’re on the same page by the end of the film.
The movie opens with slick title cards jiving under the smooth jazz beat of Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What,” setting up a fun retro vibe. Newspaper clippings and stock footage suggest we are in America amid the throes of the Cold War. But there’s a twist: the CIA and KGB have teamed up their finest agents—Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer)—and forced them to set aside their differences for the greater good.
Ritchie frequently employs the ironic contrast between an upbeat score and heavy violence. In one memorable moment, Napoleon sits safely inside a truck parked at a dock while henchmen chase after and shoot at Illya. Napoleon then finds a fresh sandwich in a picnic basket in the truck and calmly eats while the chaos in front of him unfolds to the tune of an Italian pop song. The scene is easily the film’s funniest. But even though The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sometimes made me laugh, it frequently left me disappointed.
The begrudging CIA and KGB partners are on a mission to stop Nazi sympathizers from building nuclear weapons. That premise might sound simple enough, but the plot is absurdly difficult to follow. The film rushes through incessant action scenes without stopping to catch its breath and explain what’s going on. Ritchie and Wigram do lay out basic details, but such slivers of information quickly get lost in the frenzy. The filmmakers are poor communicators because, like these secret agents, they prefer gunfire to dialogue.
When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does decide to sit down and talk, it reveals a knotted mess of relationships. The movie hinges on the connection between auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), her father, Udo (Christian Berkel), and her uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth). Rudi works for Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), the aforementioned Nazi supporter who wants Udo to build nukes for her so she can destroy something (I’m still not sure what). Add to this the fact that Gaby has her own complicated motives and you can see how tracking the story becomes difficult.
As if the sloppy structure weren’t bad enough, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also subscribes to abysmal gender politics. There are at least six men with major speaking roles in this movie, and their characters all have complete if predictable arcs. The women, however, get short shrift, since Ritchie opts to use them as sexual objects instead of flesh them out as human beings. Gaby (the female lead) gradually falls for Illya while posing as his fiancée for the mission, and Victoria (the film’s antagonist) inexplicably sleeps with Napoleon. A third woman—the only other female character with several lines—appears topless after she gets out of Napoleon’s bed early in the film (she is listed merely as “Desk Clerk” in the credits). None of the men in the cast ever show any skin.
One might argue that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. engages with early 60s sexism for historical accuracy. I would counter that perpetuating reductive character dynamics is unnecessary for a film that takes place in a fictional version of history, and especially needless for a work released in 2015. This film is, unfortunately, a reminder that degrading treatment of women is still happening some 50 years on. It’s especially disheartening to see a talent like Alicia Vikander wasted on such a diminutive part. Her last big role—in this past spring’s Ex Machina—was a significant step forward for feminist filmmaking. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels like a step back.
Even when Ritchie focuses on action—his ostensible forte—The Man from U.N.C.L.E. crumbles. Frenetic camerawork makes the escalating conflict mostly incomprehensible. Tracking people and vehicles through chase scenes becomes impossible until everything enters the same frame. Comic strip-style montages hastily plow through combat sequences without trying to keep the viewer in sync with what’s happening. Piercing noises accompany rough visual transitions as editor James Herbert attempts to complement the film’s hurried ending.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. builds up and sputters out three times in its final twenty minutes. None of those mini-climaxes are particularly satisfying, instead frustrating rather than arousing my interest in the subject matter. The film’s lazy storytelling approach is far more concerned with reaching its own finish than with providing any sort of narrative closure. Ritchie tries to use superficial charm to overcompensate for a weak plot and falls flat. The movie’s throwback aesthetic makes it look old, but its regressive gender stereotypes make it feel archaic.
Movie Verdict: Fail
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 14, 2015.