A Look Back: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie’s Espionage Masterpiece and Why “Style vs Substance” Needs to Die
I originally planned on writing this piece in January, but due to a focus on school and mainly writing reviews for some newer films, this was put on the back burner. Now having seen Guy Ritchie’s latest film, the live action remake/adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin, it has pushed me to finally talk about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and more importantly, the debate of “Style vs Substance”. With films such as Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, RocknRolla, Revolver, Snatch, and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie has carved out a pretty polarizing filmography with each and every one of his films featuring the very defined and recognizable Guy Ritchie style.
It is in Ritchie’s specific style that many bring up the argument of “Style vs Substance”, but when looking at any artistic piece, that debate has only grown to be dated. On a personal level, one of my biggest gripes with so-called cinephiles is their inherent need to belittle others’ favorite films. Whether it be calling the Fast and Furious movies bloated and terrible action movies despite never having seen them, the Marvel Cinematic Universe mindless-superhero fodder, or Star Wars a bunch on nonsensical space wizardry, people tend to try and belittle anything that they see as a lesser form of art that their own personal tastes. While I love films like Roma and Annihilation, I also unabashedly adore the current state of the MCU and the stories that are being told in this ever-growing cinematic universe, and even the DCEU, with films like Aquaman and Shazam being absolute blasts to watch. This is a trend that is simply put, not okay. As lovers of cinema, we are not supposed to just tear into others for liking something vastly opposed to our tastes, rather let them enjoy their favorite films because truth be told, you probably enjoy at least one movie that the majority does not. So what does any of this have to do with 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Well, the film is completely stylized with there not being much surface-level substance to it, however, it is in its style that the film creates its substance and in the process, making it an important piece of art. Without further ado, let us take A Look Back at Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E..
I am just going to say it as straightforward as possible; this movie rocks. Before he was sporting the infamous mustache and fighting Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Fallout, Henry Cavill was following up his turn as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel by portraying Napoleon Solo, an American spy in this film. It still boggles my mind that out of everything Cavill has been in, I still can not name a movie in which he uses his native British accent. That being said, he is an absolute delight throughout this movie, even showing some great comedic timing which comes as an immediate surprise for those only familiar with his Superman role. As the other lead, Illya Kuryakin, Armie Hammer excels in what is arguably both his best and most notable role following The Social Network (prior to Call Me by Your Name). The dialogue between Solo and Illya is well written and expertly delivered by both Cavill and Hammer, landing each comedic beat right on the punchline and helping distinguish this film from other lackluster action fodder. The entire film is bolstered through the chemistry of Cavill and Hammer, and to a lesser extent Alicia Vikander as Gaby, who does the best with what she is given, even having solid chemistry with Hammer as the love interest, but is not nearly as entertaining as the two leads are.
Oh, also this movie boasts Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Grant in supporting roles, both of whom are great in nearly everything they do (seriously, give Debicki more roles, she is amazing in Widows).
The acting is not the only thing to talk about, with Ritchie’s specialized cinematic eye being a talking point in nearly every film he has ever made. There is not a single director working today that has this same sense for directing action sequences quite like Ritchie, with his varied uses of quick cuts, exaggerated zooms, and slow motion, all blending together to form his own unique blend of visual storytelling. Guy Ritchie knows how to move a camera, and it is why he has had the career he has had over the past decade. While his fast-paced action sequences are not going to be to everyone’s liking, (and while they will not always be perfectly executed) at almost every turn of this film they are perfectly integrated into the narrative, helping weave the web of a consistently escalating potential “world-ending” plot.
While the movie is a complete deviation from the source material in terms of its presentation, it does keep the same characters and the overall campy feeling from the 1960’s television program of which it is based off of. It is not often that a reboot will be better than its original, however with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I would not be hard pressed to argue that Guy Ritchie’s film is a more enjoyable endeavor. From the stylized opening credits, this film already feels like its own entity almost entirely, only sharing a few similarities in its characters and basic ideas regarding spies and espionage.
If I were to try and sell you on this movie solely off of one scene, it would be the boat scene. The masterclass direction from Ritchie is not highlighted by another scene in the film quite like it is here, with a blend of great acting, engaging action, and a combination of beautiful music (the soundtrack to this film is also pretty solid if you have the time to go and listen to it, just a little recommendation) and cinematography. Seriously, this scene is great and it makes me fall more in love with the entire movie each time I watch it.
Upon release, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. bombed domestically, only bringing in $45 million (worldwide total $109 million) on a $75 million budget. Unfortunately while the film has seemed to amass a greater cult following since its release four years ago, the chances of a sequel are minuscule with the risk on a monetary return not being worth it from a studio’s perspective. This is honestly such a shame, because while people will continue to trash mainstream summer action pictures on a yearly basis, this came out and actually felt different compared to some of the more homogenized, overly serious action films that get released on a regular basis*cough cough Olympus Has Fallen trilogy cough cough*. I would much rather sit through this movie three times in a row than sit down to watch all three of the Olympus Has Fallen movies if I did not make that clear enough, though I do think the original is pretty alright.
The main critique as to why this film does not deserve the praise it gets is simply that it lacks substance, but that just is not true. People will continue to have the “Style vs Substance” debate for years to come, with many cinephiles demanding that only the most high-brow films be considered great, in the process belittling those who enjoy anything other than their own taste. This downward trend of negativity towards others’ personal tastes is one of the worst aspects of being a film lover. You can like or dislike any movie you want, there really is no wrong answers. Be yourself, love the films you want to love and not the ones that people tell you to, and most importantly, just enjoy the art form. Film is a form of escapism, allowing audiences to journey into fun, hilarious, terrifying, romanticized, otherworldly universes, out of everyday mundane life. So what if someone wants to go see the newest Transformers movie? So what if someone wants to watch foreign films that they may not understand right away? So what if Marvel eventually hits 50 films in their cinematic universe, continuing to draw record-breaking audiences? So what if you want to lose yourself in indie hits like Mid90s, Lady Bird, or Booksmart? None of these films are alike one another, each being incredibly distinct and appealing to different audiences, in the end they are all a part of the cinematic experience. What it means to be a film lover is to adore and share the films you love, not destroy the ones you hate.
If you have yet to ever see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. then definitely be sure to check it out, with the film being available to rent and buy on Amazon, Blu-Ray, and digital! And if you have seen it before, then go watch it again! If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to follow me for more and to follow me on my social media:
Also, if you made it this far and are interested in checking out another one of my articles, be sure to take a read on something I wrote for the 2018 film, Blindspotting: