I once read an article on the origins of punk rock, which noted that it initially began as an attempt by musicians in the 1970s to get back to the style of original 1950s rock and roll. In the process of trying to get back to something old, the article contended, it wound up inventing something wholly new in the process. Something similar can be said for ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E,’ which eschews the over-the-top, mega-budget, super technology, action spectacular approach of modern spy movies and instead creates a wonderful 60s period piece. The result arguably solidifies the credibility of (though I can’t say with utter certainty that it actually invented) a retro sub-genre for spy films.
That the spy genre first really emerged as its own unique category in the 60s is a point no one disputes. It was then, through the ‘James Bond,’ films and shows like ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ that general audiences were introduced to the fun of secret agents and espionage, of exotic locales and sexy women, of elaborate plots to blow up/destroy/take over the world. These ideas really struck a chord with people then, and they continue to today. Indeed, this genre of filmmaking has proven remarkably durable over the years; growing and adapting to accommodate the contemporary demands of moviegoers. One result of this is that spy films have increased in scope over time, such that they are now packed with ever growing amounts of action, ever more advanced gadgets, ever larger set pieces, and ever more complicated plots from villains to blow up/destroy/rule the world. At best this makes a film utterly thrilling; at worst it can feel over saturated. Either way, most spy flicks are much more heavily produced than the original 60’s stuff that spawned this genre, a lot of which feels quite simple and modest by comparison.
Now comes along this year’s ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’, starring Henry Cavill (‘Man of Steel’) and Armie Hammer (‘The Lone Ranger’), and directed by Guy Ritchie (‘Sherlock Holmes’); which manages to bring us back to the original fun of 60s spy pictures by, well, literally making a 60s spy picture. No, unlike ‘James Bond’ or ‘Mission Impossible,’ the filmmakers did not choose to update this franchise to our current time period; rather they set the film in the 60s, the same era as the original television show this picture is based on, with the action and gadgets and destruction plots in this movie– it wouldn’t be a spy picture without them– all toned down to levels they were in films of that decade. Granted, various spy movies, even contemporary ones, have paid tribute to the 60s in some shape or form, with many clearly homaging it, but I can’t think of any made recently that actually use that decade not only for the setting but also as a model for scope and execution. ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ might very well be the first, and for more reasons than one that makes it feel incredibly fresh.
I’d like to start by saying that the filmmakers did a very good job of recreating 1960s Europe, where the film is set. This time/place are lovingly brought back through some fashionable, period-accurate costumes (God bless spy tuxedos); some well crafted and elaborate sets; and probably some CGI technology to fill in the gaps. The general culture of this period as well as the classic spy aesthetic has been excellently reproduced on screen–I think spy movies work best when set during this time– and it’s genuinely enjoyable to see this cinematic era come back to life.
Of course, all of that production design would be for not if ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ didn’t have a captivating plot. Thankfully, it does: with Cold War tensions on the rise and the nuclear arms race in full swing, an American spy, with the quite silly (yet simultaneously awesome) name Napoleon Solo (Cavill) must team up with Soviet Spy Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) in order to find and destroy a new kind of warhead. It’s your classic spy movie set up; but it’s the dynamic between these two strong characters–rather than action or gadgets or effects or some convoluted world domination plot– that is the real heart of this story.
The movie excellently establishes both of these characters early on: their personalities, their motivations, and their mutual dislike of each other. Solo is much more of a classic secret agent: he is confident, smooth with women, and highly skilled; he plays by his own rules; and he delivers some fun one-liners. Kuryakin, on the other hand, is the straight man. He is a no-nonsense Soviet agent–very by-the-book–with no time for personal enjoyment. They are perfect opposites in the spy world, and forcing these two to work with each other is narrative gold. We really appreciate the ways in which they gradually learn to operate together and steadily become less hostile towards each other. It’s rather satisfying character growth; and I’m struggling to think of another spy film where I enjoyed the protagonists and their arcs quite as much as I did for this one.
In addition to this nice dichotomy between the two leads, we also get some good romantic tension between Kuryakin and German ally/accomplice Gaby Teller (played thoughtfully by Alicia Vikander). They have a flirtatious relationship throughout the story that the film has a lot of fun teasing us with; and it’s nice to see this kind of romance be more restrained than it normally is in the movies. Plus, it also provides additional growth for Kuryakin as he learns to open up from his cold exterior and allow himself more emotion.
It’s through these relationships that we can really see the benefits of the film’s retro-approach: apart from the Cold War setting giving the necessary fodder for the central character conflict, the toned-down-to-the-60s levels of action and suspense actually provide for enough breathing room to really make these characterizations and interactions work. Try finding enough space for sound character arcs amidst the noise of your typical spy thriller these days.
Granted, there’s still a good amount of normal “spy stuff” in the film–we do get some cool gadgets and some secret-agent action– but, again, in scope it feels like something from 30 or 40 years ago, as opposed to the grand, drawn out set pieces we usually get in such films nowadays. This is particularly true for the action; which I fear some people will think makes this film less exciting. Personally, though, I really enjoyed this less-is-more approach. Apart from it allowing for the aforementioned character development that drives this story; it actually, in its own way, makes some of it more inventive.
Take an action scene mid-way through the picture involving Solo and Kuryakin in a boat chase in an enclosed area, for example. It has fairly low stakes and not a lot of pure spectacle; and if it had been executed the way such scenes are normally executed in a spy film, it might very well have seemed boring. On the contrary, however, the filmmakers take the unusual twist of having Solo fall off his and Kuryakin’s boat early on, after which he proceeds to swim to a dock, hop inside a truck, find some food and wine, and begin to eat, drink and listen to the radio while watching Kuryakin drive his boat back and forth around whilst trying like mad to avoid getting killed by the villainess’s henchmen. It really is a very entertaining moment in the film; one that uses direction and writing over pure stunt work and noise to make it enthralling.
I should point out that while I wasn’t familiar with Guy Ritchie prior to seeing this film, I have to say that if this is representative of his general directorial work, then I’ve been won over as a fan. He has a very quirky, unorthodox style: he has a lot of fun with editing and cinematography; his sense of action (see the above paragraph) is very unique; he coordinates his scenes with the film’s music in thrilling ways (as a side note, large sections of the score appear to have been inspired by composer Ennio Morricone’s 1960s spaghetti western scores; appropriate for the time if not quite the genre); but in all of that he is still able to keep focused on character; such that these other parts of his film support it rather than distract from it.
That’s not to say everything about the movie works. I did think that it ran a little long and at times got a little too complicated, and the beats involving the main villainess I felt were a little cliché; but those complaints are really fairly minor compared to what ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ has going for it otherwise.
And again, I do want to stress how much ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ works in its 1960s setting and its 1960s purview. Through strong character and vision, the smaller, throwback scale of this picture succeeds. Plus, it really is fun to see the 1960s brought back to life at least partially in this movie. All of this lends credence to the idea that the retro sub-genre of spy films (setting these pictures in some time other than the present) is A) legitimate and B) ought to be explored more. In an age where most other spy films have to constantly push the limits of action and technology on both internal and external levels, the idea of taking them back a few decades is a viable solution to the problem of otherwise always having to one-up everything. It allows for more flexibility in terms of stakes and scope in a story and also can add to the exotic flavor of spy pictures. I mean, we already generally get exotic locations in spy movies; why not exotic time periods too? We’ve see that the 60s works very well; but we could also see spy films set in the 70s or 80s, and there’s good potential there too. Obviously, not every new spy film needs to do this– it’s clearly problematic to try to set every spy film in the past– but I think more should.
2015 has been a pretty prominent year for spy movies. ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service,’ proved to be a surprise hit in February, ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ has been another well received entry in its franchise, and this November’s ‘Spectre,’ is sure to make waves. Unfortunately, a midst these other films, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ appears to have gotten lost in the crowd– it opened a little too close after ‘Rogue Nation,’ and is underperforming domestically (though overseas grosses might still save it). I view that as a shame, because this really is a surprisingly good film–better than it has any right to be any ways– and probably the most unique spy movie of the year. I’d love to see a sequel to it, but given the low box-office, that might not happen. Even if that’s the case, I’m still glad that Warner Bros. took a chance on making this film. Hopefully it’ll have a new life once released on VOD/home video and it might find the audience it deserves to have; and I really do hope that other filmmakers will use it as an example and that we will see more retro-spy films in the future.