Hammer Of The Mods: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Reviewed

Tom Duggins goes solo to review Guy Ritchie's stylish retro-spy caper

Have you heard the one about the K.G.B. agent and the American spy who form an unlikely partnership in order to bomb something, and then spend a lot of time patting each other on the back, sharing emotionally revealing stories, hugging, and just generally soothing each other? It was a case of…mutually re-assuring destruction. Chuckle chuckle. But seriously, there’s none of that in Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – well, actually, no to be honest, there is a bit.

The film takes its 60s espionage T.V. source material and gives it a modern bromance action comedy twist. The American agent (Henry Cavill) is cocky and self-serving, the Russian agent (Armie Hammer) is uptight and officious: you just know they’ll have a few charming tiffs along the way, like two irritable kittens in a laundry basket being manipulated by world political machinations. They’ve had to form an unsteady alliance across the Iron Curtain to hand out a serious post-war beat-down on their old foe: Nazi rocket scientists who didn’t defect to either the U.S. or U.S.S.R. (Bastards!) It would appear that some sexy Italians have gotten hold of one of Hitler’s leading rocket guys, and have some highly dubious motivation for employing him. Is this just an excuse for some hot, travel ad filming on location in Italy? Yes. In fact, I’d say the film is pretty upfront about it, and all the more respectable for that.

One of the film’s saving graces is that it makes no bones about being a forgettable throwback bit of nonsense. The latest Bond film suffered drastically from being stuck between two opposing sets of needs. Skyfall tried to be modern, intelligent and serious, but still have the classic Bond hallmarks of humour, camp gadgetry and sexism. In the end, what we got was a half-measure of everything and a film that took itself far too seriously. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. embraces its origin in ’60s culture, for good and bad, and doesn’t try to offer a tempered sexism to excuse itself. (In particular, I’m thinking here of the fact that Moneypenny, in Skyfall, did initially do field work, but just conveniently chose to go sit behind a desk and not get in the way with her dratted womanly incompetence.) Where the latest Bond offering just frustrated me with being po-faced, I can honestly say that I laughed, hearty and satisfied, at a few of this film’s best comic sequences. However, that’s not to say it was always laugh-out-loud funny.

The film makes a point of putting in lots of cheeky double entendres that remind us of how delightfully risqué the 1960s were; back in a time when political correctness hadn’t sapped all the fun out of things, and executive paedophiles could operate across politics and showbiz with complete impunity. There’s one big gag about toilet-trading which is especially unfunny. If anyone goes into this film wondering “isn’t ’60s spy stuff like this a bit redundant and tired nowadays?” then I doubt that aspect of the film will convince them otherwise. But, if that is a genuine concern, you probably won’t be too desperate to go see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. anyhow.

It has to be said that all the lead actors are exceptionally charming, and do their bit to lift what would otherwise be a predictable and very functional plot. (Elizabeth Debicki deserves a special mention for busting out some highly impressive lip-acting, as does Hugh Grant for being a jolly good sport.) Pretty much every other aspect of the film is well handled: the music, the acting, the way it’s shot and edited. It all looks great, but there’s only so much you can take away from a paper-thin espionage story that you feel you’ve sat through a hundred times already. Guy Ritchie employs one of his favourite directorial signatures a few times in the film: a ‘missed-out’ edit, where something unexpected happens for seemingly no reason, and then you get an immediate return to that same scene with all the revealing parts put back in. It’s meant to generate a ‘Huh? Whuh… Oh!’ excitement, but the plot is so fundamentally not-interesting that it doesn’t produce the desired effect.

Overall, it’s a bit like the sort of cocktail a playboy spy would drink if he’d set aside an afternoon to just get seriously shitfaced in a hotel bar. It gets the job done if you fancy whiling away an evening or afternoon, but is largely unremarkable. All the trademark Guy Ritchie stuff is there: a toe-tapping funk and soul soundtrack, well executed and fast-paced action sequences, banterousness both good and bad. It all moves along at a good clip (although it sags noticeably in the middle), and is basically just… well, diverting and fairly enjoyable. When Channel 4 get around to licensing it for T.V. and put it on at about 7pm on a Bank Holiday Sunday, I could definitely see myself watching it if I had a moderate hang-over and couldn’t be bothered to leave the house.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is out in cinemas now

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