“Style over substance” is a phrase that’s usually used as a kind of back-handed insult, mainly because “pretty but dumb” just isn’t pithy enough. But what if “style over substance” is the entire point? What if you pimp out the style because there IS no substance? That seems to be the thesis behind Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a film built almost entirely — unashamedly, even — on a mod collection of cliches.
And sometimes that’s not a bad of a thing. Well, not completely, anyway.
The plot, such as it is, involves a nefarious European bad guy and some nuclear weapons or some sort. Enter CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illyia Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), forced to work together for the common cause of keeping the world safe from nefarious European bad guys with nuclear weapons. They’re also protecting Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who’s father is working on said weapon, which is actually in possession of bad girl Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Hugh Grant also shows up at one point to be very, very British.
Based on the classic 1960s spy series and the fever dreams of TV Tropes contributors, U.N.C.L.E. is a frothy mix of spy action, retro style, and dry martini humor that tends to swing, pendulum-like between self-aware and self-important. Or at least as self-important as a film whose lead character is named Napoleon Solo could be taken. Richie never quite settles on a tone for the film, which is its first big problem. The opening scenes are very genre-savvy, but they’re played just serious enough to avoid descending into satire. That charm slowly evaporates over the course of the film’s runtime, and at shortly after the hour-long mark, it becomes suddenly, incredibly (albeit briefly) dark. Ritchie tries to lighten the film up after that point, but it never quite recovers.
Caught between a drama and a satire.
Ritchie does get the period dressing right, though, and the moments where it revels in its setting and style are when the film really finds its groove. The fashions and sets go to incredible lengths to liven up the film, and Ritchie’s taste in music can’t really be questioned; he starts the film with Robert Flack and ends with Nina Simone. This is a film where the clothes almost entirely make the man (or woman), from Cavill’s tailored suits to Debicki’s never-ending collection of haute couture.
The visual cues, in fact, inform on the characters far more than the script does, no matter how much exposition it doles out. It’s almost impossible to see any of these characters as more than spy genre archetypes. Like the film itself, they’re all style and no substance, except here it doesn’t feel quite as deliberate. It’s necessarily the performances, although only Debicki consistently rises above the material. Her Victoria is a classic 60s Eurotrash ice-queen, beautiful and imperious and clearly not to be trifled with. She even intimidates the soundtrack into shutting up at one point, a gloriously metatexutal moment that the film could have (and should have) used more of.
No, Mr. Solo, I expect you to nap.
One thing to note, and it’s partially trivia and partially a genuine issue with the film, is that aside from Hugh Grant, nearly everybody in the main cast is playing a nationality not their own, and the accents are…a mixed bag. Cavill’s does the suave American a bit too well, and Hammer speaks in a suitably gruff and utilitarian “stage Russian” accent. Debicki doesn’t even bother trying to sound Italian, but the precise, formal British accent she uses suits the character far better anyway. Like the clothes, each character’s voice is a better indicator of their personality than their actual dialogue, for better or for worse. There’s a real, plot-based reason (probably) for Vikander’s maddeningly inconsistent accent, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. The supporting characters tend to settle for sounding vaguely European (in the same way that General Foods’ Cafe Francais is an actual European coffee drink) and leave it at that.
Sadly, though, Ritchie doesn’t know when to dial the style back. The film is about 15 minutes longer than it has any right to be given its non-existent plot, and he pads the final act out with a prolonged series of flashbacks to events just a scene or two prior. U.N.C.L.E. is a film constantly striving to justify its own existence and only sort of succeeding. It’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s full of the energetic action-scene language that Ritchie’s known for. At the same time, that’s all it has, and that’s mostly okay. Like the campy Euro-centric spy films of 50 years ago it harkens back to, it's entertaining and enjoyable precisely because of its unabashedly superficial nature. And like those films, it’s probably best served with a pitcher of martinis.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-