[CULTURE AND ENTERTAINMENT ★★★]
“THE MAN FROM UNCLE”: STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE
(P1) The opening of The Man from UNCLE is a delight. Set in 1963, it introduces a SUAVE CIA agent named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), who has been assigned to SPIRIT a pretty German mechanic, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), out of East Berlin. Unfortunately for him, the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) has other ideas, so the two spies are soon chasing each other around the city, taking it in turns to OUTWIT each other, and driving so close to each other that their BOXY East German cars are dancing CHEEK-TO-CHEEK. Combining the IMMACULATE style of an early Bond movie with the SHADOWY urban LANDSCAPE of The Third Man, it’s graceful, WITTY, and BREATHLESSLY entertaining. The annoying thing is that the rest of the film is NOWHERE NEAR as good.
(P2) There are various reasons for this, the main one being that Solo and Kuryakin TEAM UP shortly after their Berlin SKIRMISH, and no one else in The Man from UNCLE can challenge them as much as they challenged one another. A PREQUEL to the SNAZZY 1960s television series with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the film asks why two Cold Warriors from either side of the Iron Curtain would ever work together: how FORMIDABLE would a common FOE have to be to force them to put aside their differences? But the answer to that question is: a common foe who isn’t very formidable at all.
(P3) Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, The Man from UNCLE has Solo and Kuryakin POOLING THEIR RESOURCES to rescue a German atomic scientist – Gaby’s father – from a CABAL of Italian FASCISTS. And, put like that, it does sound like a BIG DEAL. As it turns out, however, our heroes’ joint mission is hardly TAXING. Their BRIEF is to INFILTRATE the fascists, which ENTAILS WINNING OVER the central villain, Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), an amusingly SNOBBISH but not even slightly scary SOCIALITE. To do this, they have to LOUNGE AROUND in tourist spots and luxury hotel rooms in Rome, like the catalogue models they resemble. Their toughest task – the centre-piece of the whole film – is to sip champagne and make small talk at a motor-racing track. Surely the CIA could have handled that on its own.
(P4) The film’s LEISURELY tone seems to have been set by Cavill’s Solo, and his never-a-hair-out-of-place INSOUCIANCE. While Hammer’s GRUMPY Kuryakin sometimes behaves as if what he’s doing actually matters to him, Solo is presented as a former war PROFITEER and art thief who only works for the CIA so that he can avoid a long prison sentence. He doesn’t care about righting wrongs or saving civilisation, nor does he care much about Kuryakin or Gaby. Apparently modelling his QUIZZICAL DETACHMENT and SILKY over-ENUNCIATION on Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in The Matrix, Cavill plays Solo as someone who may cock his head and raise an eyebrow when he’s getting emotional, but who is so COMPLACENT in general that he’ll stop for a sandwich and a glass of wine while his partner is DODGING machine-gun bullets. It’s certainly brave of Cavill to OPT for such an OBNOXIOUS characterisation, and initially it’s funny to see him reacting to danger with all the AGITATION of a cat SNOOZING on a sunny WINDOWSILL. But, ultimately, it’s a bit much to expect an audience to be tense about the potential ONSET of World War Three when Solo so obviously isn’t. He’s more concerned about whether he has spilt focaccia crumbs on his tailored three-piece suit.
(P5) Ritchie, LIKEWISE, directs the film with SMIRKING NONCHALANCE. After that masterful opening car BALLET, he makes a point of THROWING AWAY the action sequences: shooting them from a distance, IRONISING them with UPBEAT pop songs, chopping them into MONTAGES. We’re invited to SNIGGER rather than GASP. It is, like Cavill’s performance, a DARINGLY COUNTER-INTUITIVE approach, but if Ritchie is really so CONTEMPTUOUS of action movies, he probably shouldn’t have signed up to direct one.
(P6) Having said all that, there’s a lot to enjoy in his BREEZY stroll through the TRAPPINGS of a 1960s Mediterranean spy CAPER. Smartly DISTINGUISHING itself from all the other Bond WANNABES in the multiplex, The Man from UNCLE LUXURIATES in SPLIT SCREENS, GROOVY RETRO fashions and a finger-clicking soundtrack: not since Anchorman has so much jazz flute been heard in a Hollywood movie. It also has a few jokes and a few plot twists that raise a smile. Finally, it’s worth remembering that Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film peaked with its EXHILARATING opening sequence before TUMBLING DOWNHILL, and that the second one was a major improvement. If The Man from UNCLE gets a sequel, then it could be a treat, too, if only because it wouldn’t have to do the LEGWORK of establishing the Uncle organisation, and it could allow the team’s WRY boss (Hugh Grant) some more screen time. Whether this AMBLING film will be popular enough to MERIT a sequel is another matter.
If you found the passage difficult to read or had problems understanding specific words or idiomatic expressions, please discuss them with your tutor. The following discussion questions should be answered in your own words and with your own arguments.
- Briefly summarize the content of the article in your own words.
- Spy movies seem to be very popular lately, WHAT WITH James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible. Do you enjoy this GENRE?
- Retro fashion from the 1950s and 1960s has been showing up a lot on television (Mad Men) and in movies like this. Do you like this style of dress?
- There is a lot of pressure on movies like The Man from UNCLE to succeed so that a FRANCHISE can be established. What is your favorite current movie franchise?
- Henry Cavill has also played Superman, and will soon do so again. Do you like all the superhero movies, or do you think there are too many of them?
- Do you read reviews like this before going to see a movie? If not, how do you choose what movies to see?
EXPRESSIONS TO PRACTICE:
What do the following expressions mean? Practice using each expression in a sentence; extra points if you can use it in conversation.
- Nowhere near
- Team up
- Pool resources
- Big deal
- Win over
- Lounge around
- Throw away
- What with