In his essay, “Kingsman and the Maybe Genius of Non-Winking Satire,” Hulk Film Crit makes the rather bold assertion that Matthew Vaughn is a kind of blockbuster Martin Scorsese. As different as their methods may be, Hulk argues that their intentions are deeply similar: both approach ugly subjects with a brutal honesty that acknowledges the allure of said subjects without flinching from the audience’s relationship to them. Vaughn and Scorsese lovingly craft works of cinematic art that contain moments of ugliness, but always contextualize those moments with semiotic clarity.
Meanwhile, in his essay, “The Fallrise of David O. Russell,” Hulk compares Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street to O. Russell’s American Hustle, denouncing the latter and praising the former. With Scorsese’s characteristic honesty, Wolf of Wall Street refuses to pull its punches or tone down the depravity of its protagonist, instead asking hard questions of its audience by refusing to indulge them. In contrast, Hulk argues, American Hustle is a study in indulgence, a cathartically dishonest film that disguises its complete lack of substance beneath a veneer of “fun.”
So what does all this have to do with Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
Here’s my hypothesis: If Matthew Vaughn is the blockbuster version of Martin Scorsese and Kingsman is the blockbuster version of Wolf of Wall Street, Guy Ritchie is the blockbuster version of David O. Russell and Man From U.N.C.L.E. is the blockbuster version of American Hustle.
(NOTE: Vaughn and Ritchie are close friends in real life and have collaborated on many films in the past before going their separate ways, which adds a really interesting meta layer to this whole conundrum, but I’m not going to get into that.)
On the surface, the films of Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) and Ritchie (Snatch, the new Sherlock Holmes movies) seem to have a lot in common. They both make kinetic, stylish genre exercises, rife with idiosyncratic musical choices and visual flair.
The difference is that, beneath the surface, Vaughn is doing interesting, meaningful and even, at his best, downright profound things. Even though he’s successfully using the language of blockbusters – that is, his films still function perfectly well as superficial fun – he’s simultaneously saying fascinating things with that language.
Ritchie, on the other hand… makes fun blockbusters (at least, that’s what he’s done since he started making blockbusters. I’m unacquainted with his earlier work and can’t comment firsthand, but as I understand it, they’re more of the same). He’s Vaughn without the subtext.
What makes all this even more interesting is that Ritchie actually seems more restrained than Vaughn. Sure, his Sherlock Holmes sequel featured a scene in which Moriarty stuck a hook through Sherlock’s shoulder and swung him around by it, but this is hardly comparable to the gory brutality of Kingsman’s now-infamous church massacre. The difference here is that while Vaughn’s use of crudity is deeply intentional and contextualized as part of an honest approach, Ritchie’s is merely there as part of a vacuous “fun surface” – and as such, what seems like restraint is actually just the dishonest veneer of palatability.Pictured: The veneer of palatability.
What crucially separates U.N.C.L.E. from the Holmes movies is that it’s entirely aware of its own emptiness – and, moreover, embraces it. The form here is perfectly matched to the content: this is a shallow movie about shallow people, and it makes no pretensions of depth. It is, in fact, a superficial movie about its own superficiality. For the first time in his blockbuster career, Ritchie is being honest about his own dishonesty – which makes Kingsman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. a weirdly fascinating pair of opposites.
During one of U.N.C.L.E.’s (surprisingly few) big set pieces, the unflappable Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is thrown from a boat during a high-speed chase around a harbor. Rather than returning to the fray like Tom Cruise would in a Mission: Impossible movie, Solo proceeds to find safety in the driver’s seat of a nearby truck, where, upon finding a bottle of fine wine and a sandwich, he proceeds to tuck a napkin into his shirt collar and enjoy himself as the set piece proceeds in the background.
In this moment, Napoleon Solo completely encapsulates The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Kingsman was obsessive in its merciless deconstruction of Bond tropes, but U.N.C.L.E. insouciantly shrugs at them – and while Kingsman’s modus operandi was brutally direct honesty, U.N.C.L.E. traffics almost entirely in innuendo. Ritchie frequently plays conventionally “exciting” events (i.e. sex or violence) offscreen for humorous effect, and here, his camera lingers on Cavill’s serenely bemused visage while gunfire and explosions resound in the background. He employs this strategy time and time again, placing one or more of his good-looking actors/models in the foreground as something a normal spy movie would fawn over occurs in the background. They, like the movie itself, are only concerned with having a good time. (And looking good doing it.)
A rehearsal of the plot would usually be in order around now, but I care as little about it as the movie does. In its nonchalance, U.N.C.L.E. allows itself to meander in a way that blockbusters often do accidentally and rarely do intentionally or pleasantly. Note how, absurdly, the plot grinds to a halt for a random tryst between Napoleon and the villainess Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), which has no bearing on the plot and occurs offscreen as part of another “Imply, Don’t Show” joke. (Another point of contrast: the sexuality here is of the winking, nudging innuendo variety, while Kingsman features a literal POV shot of a butt.) The film just about entirely eschews the traditional blockbuster’s sense of manufactured urgency; another “movie in a nutshell” scene occurs when, during a Big Second Act Twist, Solo, like many an action hero before him, realizes that his drink has been drugged. Unlike most, however, Solo promptly accepts his fate, lying down on a nearby couch after preparing a pillow for his own head. Solo’s preternatural calm permeates the film as a whole, which blithely, almost lackadaisically moves from plot point to mandated plot point, never really losing its cool despite the genre’s requisite gunfire, explosions, and abundant double-crosses. If Kingsman was an angry bombardment of punk rock, U.N.C.L.E. is a smooth bit of improvisational jazz, more of a mood piece than a blockbuster.Not pictured: Urgency.
Also note just how little The Man From U.N.C.L.E. cares about any of the ideologies or politics involved in the international conflict that comprises its setting. Any tension derived from the pairing of Napoleon and Illya comes entirely from their clashing personalities or the orders of their direct superiors: apart from Illya’s vacuous blustering about “The Russian Way” – an idea which, fittingly, first rears its head in an argument over clothing – there’s little reminder, after the film’s opening set piece (its best, incidentally), that these two are on opposite sides of the Cold War. When the film finally does tease conflict of this sort, it’s quickly shrugged off (that the film’s MacGuffin is casually destroyed in its final scene reveals how much it cared about said MacGuffin in the first place). For their part, the villains’ motivations are revealed to be as banal as the heroes’. Even the titular acronym, saved until the last minute for a halfhearted Big Name Drop (one of the favorite devices of our current onslaught of prequel/remakes), is never explained – and, true to form, the film doesn’t end on that “stinger,” but instead lingers for another half a minute or so on our attractive stars in their default mode of vaguely consternated bemusement. Indeed, for a prequel and potential franchise-starter, U.N.C.L.E. is refreshingly graceful about the burden of establishing mythology, mercifully declining to offer the convoluted explanations behind every minute detail of its source material.
In the end, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is only concerned with parading its good-looking people in good-looking clothes around good-looking locations (while sadly wasting an opportunity for them to drive good-looking cars). The aforementioned good-looking people fare well enough with their limited responsibilities. Cavill is a lightweight actor, no doubt, but he’s suited to the mood of this project in a way he wasn’t to the unrelenting grimness of Man of Steel. There, he was adrift in a sea of solemnity; here, he’s having fun, and we have fun watching him. Armie Hammer, a fine actor as seen in The Social Network or the underrated The Lone Ranger, also brings just the right amount of gravitas (read: next to none) to his role as the hapless straight man in this comedic dynamic. His role is primarily to glare at Cavill and chew the scenery with a hammy Russian accent to rival Kenneth Branagh’s in last year’s Jack Ryan. Alicia Vikander, who gave such an excellent, delicately calibrated performance in Ex Machina earlier this year, is given much less to work with here – her duties consist almost solely of being Adorable – but she makes the most of it. Elizabeth Debicki, like Cavill, is clearly enjoying herself in a role that simultaneously checks the Femme Fatale and Mustache-Twirling Villain boxes, and a deadpan, debonair Hugh Grant is a scene-stealer in a smaller part. The fact that most of the actors are putting on accents other than their own feels like a meta variation on the theme of superficiality, but Mad Men fans may be disappointed that Jared Harris, not altogether successfully putting on a Texan accent, is not clad in a “Big Texas Belt Buckle.”Pictured: Good-looking people.
Ultimately, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. succeeds well enough on its own modest terms that it’s hard to begrudge it two hours of one’s time. It demonstrates the same kind of unpretentious, underachieving self-awareness that this year’s rather generic mega-hit Jurassic World did with its non-commentary on audience-pleasing dinosaur hybrids (kinda like how the movie itself is a hybrid of other movies! It’s a metaphor, see?). It may not be insightful, but it’s internally consistent – and for my part, I’ll take a fun blockbuster that’s honest about its own emptiness over a sanctimonious one that drowns in its own imagined importance (see: this summer’s unfortunate misfire, Tomorrowland). Thankfully, though, those aren’t the only two options. We still have Kingsman.