I just watched an adaptation of one of my favorite TV shows of all time on Friday. From reading the reviews of the film you guys know the drill at this point, critics weren't impressed, and most audiences found it at the very least enjoyable. And you may think as I write this that I might be biased because I loved the show and you're free to do so. However, today I'll endeavor to make a point to you, that U.N.C.L.E. is not only of the best spy films of the year, but also one of the best of the modern era.
First off, let's talk about Mr. Ritchie. In this movie we see Guy Ritchie doing what he does best, making classic stories easier to swallow for modern audiences. He did just that with Sherlock Holmes, and he echoed a lot of his work in UNCLE. Mr. Ritchie's spoke numerous times that he made a concerted effort to bring audiences back into the very air of the 60s with every aspect of this film and it shows. The production design, the music, the suits (my god, their fantastic), all transported me back into a time when Superman was loved by everyone and James Bond was a more charmer and less killer. Think about this, who do you know that has ever said their favorite Bond film was Skyfall or Quantum of Solace? (Casino Royale was good but really?) Everybody remembers the Bond films like Goldfinger and Thunderball, or in the broader spectrum, the spy shows on the small and silver screens like North by Northwest and Mission Impossible, because they were colorful, they had an element of surrealism to them that mad everyone who watch them think that something this crazy and this thrilling, could only happen in the world of espionage. Jim Phelps was a superspy because he was had a team that could never fail. Roger Thornhill was a superspy without even knowing it. Bond was a superspy that could seduce any woman he met, not because that could happen in real life but because this was not the world of everyday human beings, this is the cloak and dagger world of shadows, and spies. These spies drove fancy cars, went to exotic places around the globe, and got into tight situations that no average joe could ever get out of. Did real spies ever do that? Or do they now? We may never know. But that wonder, and mystery, and that smooth and sexy wild ride was what made the spy films of the era stunning. Ritchie's tapped into that sensation beautifully here. His story has grave stakes, it has no nonsense spies carrying out a mission that could make or break the world. But there's also that light-hearted touch on it too, the one-liners, the tongue and cheek moments, and the deliciously out-there scenarios that made classic espionage films the classics that they are today. So well done to Guy on his expert direction.
Now to the cast. Talking of North by Northwest, one of the directions that Guy Ritchie gave to Henry Cavill and playing an American spy (ergo with an American Accent), was to model his speech on that of one Cary Grant. Grant, if you don't know him, was a suave, charming, well dressed, well spoken English actor who worked for 40 years starting during the late thirties in Hollywood. Regarded as one of the classiest men in show business, his best known role was Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Grant played such a good spy that, if not for his age, he would have been the original James Bond. With that direction, Cavill shined as Napoleon Solo. I for one thought it was funny that Cavill never watched the show, and yet he nailed the blueprints that Robert Vaughn left him for the character. He was quick of wit, skilled in stealth, and just a joy to watch on screen, just like Vaughn was back in the 60s. His partner, the Lone Ranger himself, Armie Hammer, also played his role to perfection. He, unlike Cavill, did take direct notes from David McCallum's turn as Ilya Kuryakin on the original show, and it does show. The other thing i found interesting about the performances was instead of going for a more realistic approach to playing a real KGB agent, and I think perhaps Ritchie's direction factored in here, Hammer opted to play Ilya more as the traditional, stoic, no-nonsense Russians that were portrayed on screens west of the Iron Curtain back in the day. He was more so a caricature that a real Russian, but he did have a one dimensional character to play with. Kuryakin had a lot of internal struggles he had to deal with throughout the story, there's these great cerebral camera angles that Ritchie uses to give Hammer more room to portray the struggle that Ilya goes through to adapt to The West. And it makes for very interesting viewing. He, like Cavill, was just having a ball doing his work and it does show.
I won't comment too much on the supporting characters as they didn't leave much of an impression sadly, with the exception of an amazingly over the top performance by Sylvester Groth as Rudi Teller (no spoilers why, go watch the film). Alicia Viklander was entertaining as the ingenue, Ms. Teller. Hugh Grant as Waverly wasn't really on the screen long enough to be terribly enjoyable (criminal!). However, the one member of the supporting cast that DID leave an impression was Elizabeth Debicki was Victoria, the femme-fatale. She knows how these stories play out. She played the villain and she knew it. She was irresistable, yet threatening. She was measured and calm, but still crazy as hell. Many times in the show, the three people who spent the most time on camera, were Solo, Kuryakin, and whoever the villain was. I had not seen much of Ms. Debicki's work before, but after watching her performance as the villainess, I would love to see more. Like any good old school bad-girl she does not waste her time with pretense, she knows what she wants to do and she does it, no matter who stands in her way.
Let's finish off with the most important part of the film, the story. I'll try not to say much to avoid spoilers. One of the main complaints about the plot is that it's a story that's been done before. Buddy-cop film meets James Bond, that sort of thing. And that truth is yes, the story at it's core is a tad formulaic. So what sets it apart from every other spy film ever made. The answer is one I've been building up to throughout this article. It's the movie's temporal abilities. The story may be old to the critics but the critics grew up on the old spy films, the only reason they know this story is because they saw it on TV when they were still wetting their beds. Besides, Guy Ritchie is not a man who is stupid enough to copy his stories verbatim from an outside source. If you want to arrest filmmakers for reusing basic premises then every director in Hollywood right now should be in chains. Ritchie, like any good director, has added elements to the plot that makes it unique. The story flows like a Bond film, or an operation in a mission impossible episode. It feels like your on the mission with the agents, it flows fast, it barely ever stops, and despite the supposed formulaic story, you still can't figure out what happens next. That right there is what makes a good spy thriller. You're blindsided when you see a girl killed by being painted gold. You're constantly wondering why the hell these thugs are chasing an average guy like Roger Thornhill. You don't know how the hell Napoleon Solo is going to escape from the electric chair. UNCLE keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire hundred and twenty minutes, that alone excuses any complaints about it's "overdone premise".
I'll be honest, when it's all said and done, Kingsmen was probably a better film by the numbers then U.N.C.L.E.. But Kingsmen is a movie that I would also say deserves a distinction as one of the greatest spy films ever made. It has it's flaws but so does every movie. Not to mention, it's already making enough money to warrant a sequel, and as far as I'm concerned, after sitting through the first U.N.C.L.E. film of the 21st century, that is worth celebrating. It brings back a modern audience to one of the coolest, mysterious, and sexiest times ever to be alive. Not a lot of movies can say that they have that power. I'll leave you with one question if you ask me whether or not this movie is good enough to see. If you had the ability to time travel, wouldn't you want to?