I distinctly recall enjoying The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a movie I saw in theaters the weekend it was released in 2015 with the lovely Alex Blake. In the dog days of summer, all I wanted was air conditioning and a movie about attractive men with muscular thighs doing and accomplishing things in a period setting. In the dog days of summer, that’s what I still usually want but summer hockey is filling that void this year, even if they aren’t wearing fedoras on the ice. At the time, this movie hit all my buttons. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer playing spies? Sold (see: muscular thighs). Alicia Vikander? Awesome! 1960s glam? Hell yeah! Great soundtrack, including my very favorite Nina Simone song? I’m in the front row. I was on cloud nine after this movie – Alex had to listen to me jaw about it for days and when it came out on digital, I was renting it constantly. It became a comfort movie of sorts but slowly fell off my radar until I pitched this series to our fearless editors and I went “huh, I remember feeling deeply passionate about this popcorn action movie upon its release – let’s see if it holds up”.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is something of a curiosity. It’s a big screen adaptation of a nostalgic 1960s intellectual property that feels like it was skimmed over in that boom of TV-to-film adaptations of the mid-late 1990s. Upon review of the film’s Wikipedia page, it had actually been in development since 1993, going through fourteen scripts over the course of twenty years with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh attached to direct. It feels, in a lot of ways, like a movie that no one really wanted but that was too far into the production process to stop so they decided that they might as well do this thing. This is a movie that took its sweet time to be made, a red flag signaling doom or a reminder that good things take time.
Reader, this is no Boyhood.
There is nothing…wrong, per se about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but I’m about to drag it a full country mile. If you are looking for a smart spy thriller, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for something charmingly brainless to kill some time with, you’re in the right place. Aesthetically, it is incredible to look at. The period details are stunning, the costumes are gorgeous, each member of the cast is so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s as though they were dreamt up in Photoshop. It is essentially a cast of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen in your life wearing some of the most beautiful clothes you’ve ever seen in your life in the most luxurious locations you can imagine. It’s pure fantasy fuel.
Just gonna copy and paste myself into Alicia Vikander’s gorgeous costumes and pretend I’m waltzing about Rome with Henry Cavill, be back in a bit.
The plot is nothing to write home about – something something nuclear weapon, something something Nazis, something something diplomatic harmony between the United States and the USSR vis-à-vis muscularly thighed men. Blah blah blah, spy gadgets, blah blah blah sexual tension, blibbity blobbity explosions. Just when you’re getting bored, the movie throws you a bone with Elizabeth Debicki’s character wearing a pair of earrings so enormous you wonder how her head stays upright to distract you from lines like “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, a line so bad that it makes the Anakin Skywalker sand monologue in Attack of the Clones seem like Shakespeare. It’s at it’s most enjoyable when the gang is being assembled and when Cavill and Hammer are bickering like two frat boys with enough sexual tension between them to fuel an ocean liner.
It does have bright spots – Henry Cavill has the charm level turned up to eleven here and, along with the aforementioned Elizabeth Debicki, seems to be the only person who knows what kind of movie this is. He nibbles delicately on the scenery, an Adonis in a three piece suit familiar with making schlock work. Elizabeth Debicki, whom I adore and wish nothing but all of the awards and adulation and roles that allow her to be tall for, is our villainess here. She’s comically evil but swans about so effortlessly in caftans and giant earrings that I just want to be her when I grow up. Alicia Vikander is clearly here to make a mortgage payment. And Armie Hammer….look, we need to talk about Armie.
Admittedly, I started writing this review quite some time ago, before the reveal of the stills from Netflix’s upcoming remake of Rebecca, a movie so badly cast that it makes me want to cry. The thing about Armie Hammer is that he’s good at playing Armie Hammer. When he’s playing a privileged white boy, he’s great. When he’s anything else, the wheels start to fall off a little. Here he plays the role of Ilya straight as an arrow, gunning for Oscar gold in a movie that won two awards for two TV spots and nothing else. While I’m sure Nate will keep the meaty bone that is the review of Rebecca all for himself, I tremble in both utter terror and anticipation of my reaction to Hammer does Olivier.
(NATE: I’mma let you finish, but I think we can all share in the feast that will be the Rebecca review.)
Oh yeah, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
It’s not bad. It’s okay. It boasts something of a cult following on the internet, a small gathering of faithful who clamor for a sequel that will never come. Henry Cavill is too busy being the world’s buffest nerd, Alicia Vikander may/may not be above this kind of thing now, and Armie Hammer won’t be satisfied until he is Respected As A Serious Actor By Any Means Necessary.
We’ll always have this though, this magnificently beautiful and charmingly brainless TV-to-film adaptation that no one ever really wanted in the first place.