It’s fairly easy to spot a Guy Ritchie flick, and in his most recent movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a few of his trademark flourishes find their best use yet. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer fill the suits first worn by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the ’60s television show and globetrot around the Mediterranean attempting to out-spy one another. There are three or four plots going on at once — one’s a crusade to stop a maniacal heiress from obtaining a nuclear weapon, one’s a love story, one’s a hopeful reunification of father and daughter —and so Ritchie’s penchant for hand-holding and retreading ground we’ve already covered is actually quite useful at times.
Mostly, though, the moderately bogged-down plot is just kind of there; the style, the mood, the unending suaveness of the two leads — that’s really what counts in Ritchie’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. There are some slick sequences that don’t make you forget the plot but make you simply not care about it, sequences that lose you, purposefully and gleefully, in the zippy catchiness of it all. There are some slow bits and, again, the retreading of information gets tedious as it does in other habitual instances throughout Ritchie’s filmography. But mostly this movie is all about the flow, and even if the scene-by-scene progression isn’t flawless the pacing within the scenes themselves is fantastic.
That’s all fitting, because most of U.N.C.L.E. is seen through the eyes of Cavill’s Napoleon Solo. After Han, Napoleon was always going to be the second-coolest Solo; but damned if Cavill didn’t make that a surprisingly close second. If we get lost or diverted from the plot, it’s because Solo brings us in that direction. If Hammer’s Illya pressures the team to hurry, Solo suggests sleeping on it; instead of fretting over the mission at hand, Solo instigates arguments about fashion; and in the film’s best scene, Solo treats himself to a bottle of red and a bruschetta sandwich as his partner flees authorities and gets blown up. The fact that this is played for laughs is only an added bonus to the characterization of Solo, who we discover through scenes like that to be a self-serving scoundrel first and a heroic team member second.
Sure: like that other Solo guy, Napoleon pulls off both scoundrel and hero by the end of the film. The former is always more interesting. The relationship between Solo and Illya — rife with buddy-cop cliches and framed by the tried-and-true warring personality formula — is only palatable because of this illicit angle, this sense that Solo’s more than just a spy. He’s simultaneously the best spy in the world and the guy who cares least about being the best spy in the world, simultaneously the guy who “realizes the gravity of the situation” and the guy who seems committed to not taking anything too seriously (besides that truffle risotto).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is similarly-minded. The retro world domination plot is punctuated by some hard-hitting action sequences, and that aforementioned villainess shooting someone point-blank in the face is probably the moment we’re meant to shudder and say damn, she’s evil. But then Illya runs as fast as a car and rips the back off of it, and then Solo drives over water like Spy Jesus. These things are absurd, but they’re a major part of the reason why U.N.C.L.E. works so well. Plenty of spy flicks achieve dead-seriousness with ease, and comedic spy capers usually aren’t much to write home about either (granted, some really bad “spy” movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit aim for the former but become the latter). U.N.C.L.E. straddles the middle ground with gusto.
One of Ritchie’s trademarks is to show a brief exchange from an incomplete vantage, waiting until later to reveal what was actually happening in that exchange. In Snatch, the entire climax of the film is structured like this. Ditto the Sherlock Holmes films, wherein Holmes reveals what he’s seen from his vantage. But in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie uses this device more frequently and with less “importance”, for lack of a better word, depicting not a “grand reveal” so much as a “here’s exactly how that tracking device got into this suitcase”. Very often the device reveals something we already guessed — like Gaby being an agent — or something we simply didn’t really need to know — like exactly how that tracking device got into this suitcase. But Ritchie usually deploys his device immediately after the initial set-up, which means a) the excruciating “we knew this already” feeling has no time to incubate and b) we get the sense that Solo and Illya live their lives this way. They always have a better vantage on things, not unlike Sherlock, and Ritchie conveys that here with more confidence than he ever has.
And he spreads the wealth, too. It’s definitely a Guy Ritchie movie — whether you think that’s a pro or a con is beside the point — but it’s never only a Guy Ritchie movie. Cavill shines more here than he probably ever will as Clark Kent simply due to the character, and yet Hammer and Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander make lasting impressions too. In doling out style and verve to all of these parties some of it inevitably spills over to the viewer, and while it isn’t perfect The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is probably this summer’s most dashing blockbuster.