Yesterday I saw Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Today I shall give my impressions:
See Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation instead.
If you’ve been keeping up with my jaunts to the theatre, you’ll know that I was rather lukewarm towards Rogue Nation. The story was loosely hamstrung together. The first half was incredibly weak. Character motivations were sorely lacking and the best part of the film was hopelessly spoiled by the studio’s own marketing.
For some bizarre reason, I had high hopes that The Man from UNCLE would be different. I’m not certain why. Perhaps it’s a plaguing persistence of optimism. Maybe I’m just that desperate for some decent action/spy-thriller release. I mean, the name isn’t the most elegant for a movie/series/franchise. What is UNCLE? Why is there only one man from it when clearly there are two main characters working together? Could they have possibly shoehorned in a female role more awkwardly than Alicia Vikander’s Gaby?
Actually, scratch that. If you’re bored, I’d suggest you watch both films as on reflection they’re basically the same thing but you can see where one woefully fails whereas the other… well Rogue Nation is still a middling production but still you can note the stark difference between them.
Anyway, as a succinct summation of my feelings towards The Man from UNCLE, I felt it was a rather poor movie that struggled to find any sort of interest or engagement with its audience through boring and two-dimensional characterization, dull plotting, rote action beats made confusing by a film maker’s signature style applied haphazardly and without any sort of integration with the greater piece. If Rogue Nation was riddled with missed opportunities for jokes and levity then UNCLE is so far from the mark that it might as well be a needle jettisoned amongst the stars.
Eh, that metaphor sucks but not quite as much as the movie.
So, where did things go so wrong?
First, I’m not certain Guy Ritchie is the best director for established franchises. I don’t know if he has studio executives breathing down his neck or what but I find that when he’s playing with someone else’s material, its flaws always glare brighter than its strengths. His Sherlock movies were troublesome. While I can appreciate the different direction and tone he used, as a fan of Doyle’s original work I couldn’t get how very little of the elements of what the made the original character and stories great in them. I would have probably appreciated the effort more if he had just made up some new characters and could have explored them without any concern for making enough references that those characters retained some amount of recognizability. His best movies that I’ve seen–Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels–were successful because Ritchie was able to mix in the crassness that seems so tied to the sole of his endeavours. Those characters aren’t “clean” by any Hollywood definition and the fact he can have a villain beat someone with a rubber dildo makes the strange and surreal choreography add to this strangely artistic nightmare that Ritchie films invoke. When you remove these bizarre elements from the characters and world, however, it simply makes his filming technique feel like a gimmick and one that’s more distracting than not. The best example of this is whenever an action beat started in UNCLE, we got multiple frames over-layed at once in a format that looks like a comic book spread. There’s very little to organize this mess but there’s also no benefit from creating confusion in the audience either. It lacks a thematic or character driven reason and so it mostly comes across as obnoxious.
And that’s probably the biggest issue with UNCLE. Unlike Rogue Nation, Guy Ritchie doesn’t really do the big spectacle, set-piece kind of film. Outside of his distinctive filming technique, there isn’t a lot of visual marvel to enjoy. So when there’s an incredibly weak plot, the last pillar you can balance your movie on is character. And this ties back to Ritchie clean characters are really boring.
I can tell that Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill are trying to work their lines. It’s just that there’s absolutely nothing to work here. Cavill is playing a personality-less womanizer. He’s James Bond without anything British to his name. Perhaps if this were played as a satire of how shallow James Bond is, it could work. When it’s played straight and even less engaging than the real deal, however, we’ve got a major problem. Hammer is an angry Russian. Their interplay is about as boring as their character description. The romantic subplot between the Russian and the German mechanic is also painfully cliched that even if they pulled it off it with any sort of skill it would have still remained a weak point of the film. At least, once again, Rogue Nation had the decency to not shove a romance between old man Cruise and Ferguson–tease it as they might.
The banter between the leading men is so painfully devoid of anything, however. The major arc of development–two rivals coming to rely on each other to succeed–is so poorly executed even ignoring how tired of a plot it is. What I found most surprising was the chemistry between them was inert. In the Sherlock Holmes films, there’s at least a charming tension between Downing and Law. It was really… awkward for that pair given the source material of the story but had they basically lifted it wholesale into this film it would have fit like a glove. Instead, we have Cavill playing an American Robot and Hammer spending most of his time trying to not drop his Russian accent whenever he’s doing his best cocaine addict hand waver.
If ever there was a perfect example for the importance of good writing, I think UNCLE would be a prime candidate. It’s clear that no matter how hard the actors try, they can’t save a script so lacking in story or heart. Ritchie’s direction is woefully in-adequate in hiding the boring writing beneath his heavy style and flair. It’s only a pity that writing quality is so unnoticed and undervalued that this major issue will either be misdiagnosed or simply swept under the rug. Then we can enjoy the same cycle when a studio executive attempts to revive another long past intellectual property in the hopes of snagging some quick bucks.