RECAP: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015): Guy Ritchie
Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of the 1960s TV spy classic was the first of two 2015 films to depict Berlin’s famous Checkpoint Charlie, suspect Number One to be flashpoint of World War III.
You can learn all you need to know about the style of these two movies (Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was the other) from how they film this checkpoint.
In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a dapper man confidently walks to the checkpoint in the summer in bright daylight. In Bridge of Spies a car slowly creeps to the checkpoint at night in a snowstorm. Ritchie tells us to get ready for some fun, and style, and that’s what we get.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Mr. Solo, a suave womanizer (no, a different Mr. Solo), teams up with a KGB agent and a car mechanic to track a black market atom bomb.
Napoleon “Cowboy” Solo (Henry Cavill, looking Superman-buff) and Illya “Red Scare” Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are their nations’ best spies. They are forced to team up to stop a threat greater than the threat the US and USSR pose to each other–Italian criminals, that might or might not be Mafia, holding atom bombs.
Both guys are highly skilled and essential to their mission, but the movie introduces us to the American, Solo, first, so for argument’s sake I’ll call him the hero.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a cool movie. Solo personifies his movie’s ethos. He’s dapper and a serial womanizer. He wears an apron when making dinner for a woman. Solo is a man of many varied talents, but above all he is unflappable. And he pronounces practitioners of National Socialism “Nat-zis.”
Solo distinguished himself during World War II, staying in Europe after the war to smuggle art on the black market, get rich, and teach himself several languages. The KGB informs us that at least four countries created special task forces specifically to catch him. He is the CIA’s “most prolific and successful agent.”
The CIA busted him out of prison, and they have him for at least five more years. They know he’s dealing illegally on the side. “We don’t pay to put truffles in your risotto,” Jared Harris says to Solo.
And he probably does eat truffles. During the escape from the enemy Vinciguerra satellite factory, Solo finds a basket of grapes, a sandwich, and chianti. He takes his time enjoying it instead of driving to safety.
He enjoys women as much. Solo, upon arriving at his the hotel in Rome, offers to share his welcome champagne with the hotel receptionist. She tells him, “I’m still on duty, but my shift ends in five minutes.” They decide to pass the five minutes having sex. Lesson learned–in Italy, on-the-job imbibing is frowned upon, on-the-job intercourse is not.
Cavill could not play a calmer secret agent. Solo’s practically bored during the entire movie. Throw us an eyebrow raise here and there, Henry. When Kuryakin chases Gaby’s (Alicia Vikander) getaway car in Berlin, and catches it, Solo has never seen that before, but he’s not the least bit concerned, not even when the Russian tears the metal trunk away.
Solo’s placidity works in Ritchie’s manic style. The character is enough to keep the movie from overwhelming in its hipness.
No scene exemplifies Solo more than when he breaks into the bank safe in the satellite factory. He describes the model and security features of the safe, and its weaknesses, as he cracks the safe. It’s all a cinch, until Kuryakin asks him if he’s disabled the alarm. “There’s no alarm on the 307,” Solo says. Cue alarm. Too cool by half, Napoleon Solo.
We spend a long time discovering the true villain. Ritchie fools us into thinking it’s Kuryakin, because the KGB agent spends the first chase sequence without speaking a word and tearing away parts of moving cars. But it’s not him.
Elizabeth Debicki portrays Victoria Vinciguerra, a woman blessed with a “lethal combination of beauty, brains, and ambition,” and a name that combines the Latin for “to conquer” with “war.” Just so we know who we’re dealing with.
Victoria’s father-in-law, now dead, founded the Vinciguerra shipping company, and now she runs the show. She’s the woman with her hands on both a disgraced Nazi scientist and his bomb. Not a sex metaphor.
Debicki gives Vinciguerra one emotion: ice. Is ice an emotion? Well, you get it. There’s no gray area with this woman, even her fashion, which is literally black and white in nearly every scene.
Vinciguerra meets Solo at a car race in Italy, where he promptly steals her jewelry. She shows no ill will toward the act, letting her lack of indignation speak for itself. Solo’s skills intrigue her enough to let him remain at the party to which he was not invited.
Vinciguerra is plenty smart, of course. When her satellite factory is robbed (by Solo and Kuryakin), she immediately suspects Solo and Kuryakin, calling Solo’s hotel room. She drives there to find him, demanding a key to his room, and enters to find that he has returned. She then tells her associates outside to “run away.”
Had Solo not been in his room, what would she have done? We saw how she treated her prize cow, Dr. Teller. Vinciguerra gave him 20 minutes to finish the atom bomb, or she’d kill his daughter. (The bomb must have taken months to make up to that point, and she gave him 20 minutes to finish it.)
When Teller finishes the bomb, “and with three minutes to spare,” Vinciguerra shoots him dead. “Consider that your severance package,” she could have said but didn’t.
Vinciguerra represents the problem with the movie–she’s mostly style, not substance. In the Ritchie-made world she works, because this movie is meant to be fun, and it is, but Debicki doesn’t get enough material to work with.
The opening chase scene sets the tone for the movie. Solo is helping Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, in a banner year for any actor), daughter of Nazi nuclear scientist Dr. Teller, escape from East Berlin to West Berlin.
They get in Solo’s car and drive through the mostly empty streets. Gaby waits at a stoplight. Kuryakin waits alone in the car beside her. Solo is in the backseat quizzing Gaby about the man in flat cap in the next car. He’s so damn calm about everything.
A couple of quick gun shots raise the stakes of the car chase. Solo navigates as Gaby drives and slides and hides from Kuryakin. She’s just as skilled as the KGB’s best agent on the roads, something we don’t expect but can believe because she’s an East German grease monkey.
Terrific camera work tracks the cars through the streets at high speed and low, when Gaby parks her car between two vans, then drives it on the sidewalk to hide from Kuryakin driving in reverse on the street. The camera is directly above a parked van, and the cars move in synch like scales on a balance.
Solo hides beside the van. When Kuryakin spots Gaby’s car’s shadow he pulls forward. Solo swings around behind the van and shoots at Kuryakin’s car. We hear it crash, as if the American has scored a kill. But he hasn’t; Kuryakin waits below the window line, gun in hand, exactly as Solo did earlier at the stoplight.
The lighting is classic noir. Solo is practically a body double for Orson Welles circa The Third Man. He contemplates the Russian’s wrecked car, head cocked left. A slanted line of light bisects his face from left temple to right jaw. It’s a strange, memorable shot, fully intentional.
Solo considers the results of his gunshots. Kuryakin waits. Cut amongst shots of these two waiting and thinking is a montage of Kuryakin’s KGB boss informing the agent about Solo, his reputation, and his skills.
Kuryakin is not dead, of course. He’s so alive that he catches Gaby’s car on foot, and tears off the trunk. He’s practically an animal. Gaby escapes though, and Solo navigates her at full speed into a gap between two buildings. A gap not wide enough to allow the car to pass. Where do they go? They take a left out of the car window and into the flat currently supporting the car.
This chase ends when Solo and Gaby ride a zipline across the heavily mined No Man’s Land into West Berlin. Kuryakin nearly joins them, but the American agents conspire to leave the Russian, like Gaby’s car, stuck between the walls.
We get all the elements of the movie in this scene–balanced KGB and CIA agents, smash cuts, intriguing lighting.
With the exception of the car chase in the Italian countryside, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. breaks little ground in action, instead using editing to give us something unusual.
When the British commando team invades the Vinciguerra island near movie’s end, we expect an explosive shoot-’em-up. Instead we get a musical montage, with two or three scenes at once on the screen, of the black-clad men shooting their way into the compound. It looks slick, sounds slick, is slick.
If Solo is the hero, that makes Kuryakin the sidekick. Shh, we won’t tell him about it. If we did, his hands would start twitching and he might or might not walk away.
The Russian is as temperamental as Solo is cool. That makes them each other’s foils. He’s really strong, physically, because he can rip off car parts and throw motorcycles. His beating of three Italian fops doesn’t even warrant a scene.
But the Russian, who works better alone, is forced to feign engagement to Gaby. He soon takes orders from Gaby and Solo, especially in Rome. He and Gaby, posing as an engaged couple, play fight in their hotel room, until Gaby is atop Kuryakin. They almost kiss but don’t.
Two Italian goons follow the Russian and German into the Forum. They are going to rob them, and everyone knows it. Solo told Kuryakin that he must let them rob him, to strengthen the architect cover story the KGB cooked up.
Kuryakin is very, very angry about all this. When he gets mad he hears the steps of synchronized marching in his head. In Rome, he chops one of the thugs in the throat, but at other times he can walk away.
For example, he doesn’t touch Solo after the American insinuated his mother slept with his father’s friends. Kuryakin upends the table, but he doesn’t strike his new partner.
Hammer is given the less fun role, the character forced to play the straight man to Cavill’s Lothario personage. He has to be angry all the time, in a movie that doesn’t call for it. I think he succeeded in the role, but was the role right for the movie?
Kuryakin might be the fish out of water in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but don’t forget that he was the youngest agent to ever join the KGB and became its best in three years. He also has a chess Elo rating of 2401, enough to make him an International Grandmaster. In his Rome hotel room he can be seen brooding over a chessboard, much to the boredom of Gaby. It’s never clear who he was playing.
In the field Kuryakin is unmatched. His tech is measurably better than the American’s. He also knows a move called The Kiss. He smacks a guard in the ear, leaving him unconscious and standing for 20 minutes. Is such a thing possible?
Kuryakin likes his women strong, but he is worried about getting lost in them. He touches his fake-fiance with painfully cold hands. Ladies are not his strong suit, but it had to be him, and not Solo, to fake the engagement, because Solo would certainly screw it up.
Hammer shows interesting improv skills in Rome. Gaby quizzes him about the Spanish Steps, and the Russian poorly fakes a cute story about a Russian designing the steps. The moment is a nice twist on the trope of spies who instantly know everything about their subjects.
Gaby is the third wheel. Her uncle is the man who disappeared, the man who is making an atom bomb for terrorists. She doesn’t want to be involved, but what choice does she have?
To get involved with the Brits. That’s the twist we get. She works with the Rusky and the Yank, until it’s convenient to give them up. Forced to play the damsel in distress for much of the film, Vikander doesn’t get a lot of room in her role. But damn, she can wear about any dress the production crew threw on her. Also, great eyelashes.
Gaby doesn’t want to pretend to be Kuryakin’s fiancee. In Rome, she outsmarts him by undermining his story about the designer of the Spanish Steps. She matches the Russian in driving skills. Maybe it should have ben clear to the spies that she was also spying, because she’s so good at the stuff they’re good at, even at seduction.
Vinciguerra uses Gaby’s uncle Rudi to do her dirty work. And boy, does he like to get dirty. The spies believe he knows where Dr. Teller, his brother, can be found. He does, of course, but he seems like such a nice Nazi racist before he gets his hands on Solo.
Uncle Rudi shines in the movie’s most chilling moments. Vinciguerra introduces him to Solo, strapped to a torture chair, as Dr. Apocalypse, a man so sinister that he was suspected of being three people.
Rudi sits in front of Solo after he swings the overhead light in a circle. He props up a photo album and tells Solo his story of torture. He grew up fascinated with pain and suffering, and, luckily for Rudi, he was blessed with the supreme opportunity to practice his art: “A world war.”
Rudi treats Solo, and the audience, to photos of severed fingers and supine torture victims beneath Rudi clutching blades and saws. “Man has only two masters in this world, and their names are Pain and Fear.”
He will place Solo’s pictures at the end of his album, but not in black and white. Solo will be the first to receive the Kodachrome treatment. Those colors really pop.
Kuryakin busts up the torture party, and he and Solo strap him to the chair. Rudi blabs about everything. He says he’ll inform on anyone anywhere, undermining what information he will give up. Turns out he just wants to survive. He doesn’t torture because of ideology or allegiance to a cause. He just does it for fun.
The stunt crew pulls off some terrific driving work in the Italian forest. Someone drove a jeep through a muddy pond. Did anyone know how deep it was? We don’t see the vehicle cross the water, so I suspect they drove as far as they could into it, and later they filmed exit.
But whoever drove Solo’s buggy was an ace pilot. I say pilot because the vehicle practically flew over the the water. The driver hits the water at top speed and keeps the pedal on the floor through the entire shot and across the entire span of water.
That buggy got a workout in the woods. The brush was thick off road, but ravines and mud deterred neither machine nor man.
Kuryakin’s motorcycle also had its work cut out. Its driver bobbed amongst the tall evergreens on a wet, slick day of shooting. Without question the motorcycle driver pulled off the toughest stunt. Kuryakin pulls beside the escaping jeep, shoots out a tire, goes off the road, hits a rock, and flips the bike and driver.
After that, Solo immediately flips the jeep he was chasing and his dune buggy. All three vehicles are now upended. There’s brief fighting, viewed through Kuryakin’s upside-down point of view, until the Russian gets up and throws his motorcycle at Alexander Vinciguerra before stabbing him to death. He threw a motorcycle!
We could have seen Kuryakin beat up three Italian snobs in the bathroom. But Ritchie’s movie makes all story elements serve style. So we’re robbed of a fight that we definitely would have seen in a Bond pic.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. coolly subverts spy movie tropes and audience expectations. Never more so than during a terrific chase scene through an Italian forest.
Dr. Teller made two bombs, and one of them leaves the Vinciguerra family island on a jeep with Victoria’s husband Alexander and Gaby. Solo and Kuryakin both chase the jeep with wildly different vehicles. The American drives a dune buggy and the Russian a motorbike.
It’s unclear where Victoria’s husband is going with the bomb and hostage, but the spies are chasing them. Ritchie uses the advantages of each vehicle as they cross the forest and helpful bird’s-eye-views of the expansive chase space.
Solo is first of the two spies to make the mainland. He spots the jeep far ahead traveling on a dirt road. Solo has the best all-terrain vehicle this side of a hovercraft, so he tears off through the brush, using geometry skills to get from point A to point B.
Kuryakin is much slower to arrive to the party, and his route to reach the jeep is less clear. He always seems to be above the two four-wheeled cars.
Solo nearly catches the jeep at a muddy pond. The jeep drives through the water because it has an engine snorkel which Solo does not. No worries, because Solo has speed.
The camera shows Solo’s vehicle reaching 70 on the speedometer. Which is kilometers per hour. Which is about 43 miles per hour. So it’s not as fast as it looks. Still, Solo reaches a smaller muddy pond that he feels confident to cross. A camera in the sky captures, in one take, the dune buggy hydroplaning across the water to resume the chase.
Eventually all the cars are on the ground and there’s some fighting. We learn that the bomb was a dud. Well, a nuclear dud. It’s still a bomb, just not a nuke. Vinciguerra’s got the actual bomb.
Fast forward. The spies are all together on the UK aircraft carrier. (Why are the Italians just letting the UK into their waters?) Quickly they deduce which of the dozens of fishing boats in the area carries the nuke, how to find it, and how to kill it.
Guy Ritchie to the rescue again. Solo speaks with Vinciguerra on her father-in-law’s old fishing boat. While he speaks to her, he explains exactly how they’re going to kill her. While he explains this to her, the movie interlaces snippets we saw just minutes ago that didn’t make much sense then, but now, as Solo narrates, they do. Sounds confusing, but it works.
The bomb they captured on the mainland had a coupling device that would target the other bomb, doubling its effectiveness. They used that to arm a missile to track the radio signal traced to Vinciguerra when she answered Solo’s call. Seconds later–BANG, the ship and its passenger are dead.
This conclusion robs us of a great showdown with Vinciguerra and the spies. They settle their scores from the distance of several nautical miles. This is not necessarily a problem; often climaxes are too over the top and silly for believability.
The climax fails because it was not the best action scene in the movie. The opening Berlin car chase was more inventive, the island invasion more stylized, the car chase in the woods more spectacular, and the infiltration of the satellite factory more humorous. We’ve seen better; we want better.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. works because it is funny. The funniest moment is also the film’s most gruesome. After Kuryakin frees Solo from Dr. Rudi Apocalypse’s electric chair, they strap him to it and leave the room.
Their backs to the chair, the spies debate the merits of saving or killing the doctor. Meanwhile, the doctor shivers with electric shock until the chair ignites and he burns to death. Sure, it sounds bad, but visually it’s funny. Besides, he’s a Nazi.
It’s Solo who gets all the best lines. When in Rome, Kuryakin gets mugged. Solo suggests that Kuryakin, impersonating an architect, “take it like a pussy.”
Earlier Solo tells his handler about Kuryakin following them in East Berlin. “You should have seen it run. It tore the back off my car.”
At the car race Solo is approached by a security guy, who tries to escort him out. Solo leans in to him and says, “I am neither a goat, nor your sister, so get your hands off me.” Then he slaps his scrotum. Great line.
Ritchie saves a few sight gags, particularly during the escape from the satellite factory. Kuryakin drives the boat toward closed exit after closed exit. Solo, initially hanging from the rear, is quickly thrown off the boat. That was unexpected.
Solo then sits in a truck cab, where he finds a nice bottle of chianti and a picnic basket of food waiting for him. He watches the chase deteriorate, hearing the dulled machine gun fire as Kuryakin weaves through the water before his boat explodes. This was a funny twist that subverted formulaic expectations. Then he drove the truck onto the chase boat, sinking both.
When the guys return to the hotel, they do so cuddled up on a Vespa. Vespa’s look funny without anyone on them, so when two hulking brutes ride one, it’s real real funny.
Solo and Vinciguerra have a nice exchange when they meet. He admits to being, not a thief, but a “specialist in complicated acquisitions.” He says he can fill in gaps in her collections. Later she invites him to her office, where they can “talk more about filling in my gaps.” I don’t know if that line was intentionally funny, but I laughed.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seems to recall the very best of the 1960s while eschewing its less succulent moments and themes.
Aesthetically, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is as pleasing as movies can get. Berlin shines with cobblestone and brick like 1950s Brooklyn. And that’s East Berlin. West Berlin appears to have all the fashion high streets in the world.
The Vinciguerra family is very rich, so their villas and escapes are, as the villas and escapes of the Italian bourgeoise have been for millennia, gorgeous. They even own a crescent moon island large enough to make Tiberius jealous.
Solo and Kuryakin infiltrate a factory where they believe Vinciguerra hides the atom bomb and Dr. Teller, its maker. Another metaphor for the movie–it’s a satellite factory, slick and clean but empty. It still looked great.
The spies stay in Rome’s magnificent The Grand Plaza Hotel, and of course they have rooms full of fine art and stuffy couches. These sets are the dreams of midcentury-modern fetishists.
And, my God, the fashion! Alicia Vikander wears every color in the Creamsicle product line and the largest sunglasses that a human face can support. Henry Cavill always looks like an Oxford don. Only Kuryakin slums it in his tweed flat cap.
Perhaps it’s the biggest cliche in the spy genre, making us lust for the locations, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nails it. Even the brute forest surrounding the Vinciguerra island beckons with a alluring grit. Beautiful people + beautiful places = watchable flick.
Uncle Rudi comes off as a sadistic and racist torturer. He believes fear and pain are the only masters of this world. I suspect millions of Germans of his generation drew similar conclusions after the horrors of World War I, the fears and hunger of the Weimar Republic, and meteoric rise (thanks to hate and fear BY others OF Germany) and fall of the Third Reich.
We can, in the 21st century and in our seats watching this movie, disregard Uncle Rudi as a one-off, and unusual character. Perhaps, though, he’s unusual only in means and brains, but quite ordinary, for his generation, in beliefs.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. acquits itself well. Two men star, one woman supports, and one woman is the villain.
- “He had soft bones.”- Kuryakin about the Italian count he beat up.
- Alicia Vikander acted in 3 movies in 2015, and this was the least successful of them. She won an Oscar for her role in The Danish Girl, and her character’s special effects helped Ex Machina win an Oscar for its visual effects. So, in a manner of speaking, Vikander won TWO Oscars in one year.
- The opening credits offer a montage of newspaper clippings regarding the Cold War in the 1960s. A peppy jazz tune plays over the shots, setting us up for exactly the jazzy movie we get.
- Three times Kuryakin and Gaby almost kiss but are foiled.
Summary (35/68): 51%
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun trip back to a hyper-stylized 1960s. Squalor and misfortune are not to be found onscreen. Even the Vinciguerra factory that concealed the uranium was a satellite factory. Cleaner environments are never more rare.
Guy Ritchie brings a playfulness to the spy genre that it badly needs. That said, I don’t think this movie would work under the command of another director. It’s funny and well paced, in just the right places and right amounts to make it work.
The characters don’t have enough meat to their bones, with the possible exception of Kuryakin, to hold a movie that didn’t look so damn good. Ritchie relies on clever editing, terrific style, beautiful people and more beautiful locations to draw us into scenes. Action spectacle serves the greater good of great style.