I have to admit that I never planned on watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A friend of mine had free cinema tickets, and various people wanted to see the new Mission Impossible, the Bad Education movie and The Visit with none of us of able to agree on something. Eventually I called a compromise with U.N.C.L.E – it billed itself as a spy film, and I’d heard it didn’t take itself too seriously, so it would hopefully appease all parties. I’d also seen a few vague comparisons to Kingsman, which we’d all liked. So I went into that cinema hoping that it wouldn’t be too bad. By the time we left we were all declaring it our new favourite film.
Think back to the old James Bond films with Rodger Moore, Sean Connery and Piers Brosnan. It was a better time, a time when Bond could blow up the ridiculously-named villain’s HQ, kiss a beautiful woman and make a dramatic escape on a jet ski all without spilling his martini and no-one complained about property damage, mentioned terrorism or tried to psychologically profile him. Then remove the alcoholism, sexual harassment and terrifying thought that that man is the one protecting our country, add a slightly weird cameo from David Beckham and you have The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The film is based on the 60s TV show of the same name which was essentially American Bond and with that knowledge you might sensibly assume that the reboot film would set out to capture the spirit of these old thrillers. The real triumph of the film, however, is that it realises that the TV series could never be taken seriously in the age of the hard-drinking depressed Daniel Craig Bond and so sets out to be the exact opposite of that with its tongue in its cheek and a premise that sounds like the daydreams of a twelve-year-old boy.
The plot is certainly aptly melodramatic: set during the nuclear arms race of the 1960s, an American and Russian spy team up to prevent a billionaire couple from creating a nuclear missile to sell to the highest bidder, as well as each secretly trying to retrieve the plans for their own country. U.N.C.L.E presents this premise beautifully with a garish opening montage set to the blaring brass theme from the original show, and then goes on to reveal the hero’s name as Napoleon Solo like it’s no big deal. Nuclear missiles, crazy scientists and chase sequences in motorboats are all presented to us like they’re completely natural, but in the background you can practically hear the film squealing and wetting itself with glee because something else exploded. And that’s what I loved about the film; it’s not comedy in the traditional sense – yes, there are jokes and running gags, and it’s the master at comedic anti-climaxes – but it’s funny because U.N.C.L.E knows what it is and it loves it.
It’s a film that knows what its strengths are and plays to them. It’s also completely aware of its audience, and knows that the way to success for an action film is characterisation. Just look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier: as good a straight action film as it is, its real heart is in the relationships between the characters, particularly Steve with Bucky, Sam and Natasha. U.N.C.L.E goes the same way, creating complex characters in an uncomplex world and making the audience fall in love with them. The forced partnership and eventual reluctant friendship of American spy Napoleon Solo (to push the comparison further, the Bond equivalent, although he often seemed more Sterling Archer than 007) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin is equal parts hilarious and adorable. Illya himself deserves particular mention, being a tragically adorable angry Russian puppy with an interest in women’s fashion who already has his own fandom of which I am most definitely a proud member. Even the obligatory romance between female lead Gaby Teller and Illya is better done than any Hollywood romance I’ve seen recently, giving both parties equal agency, not letting it distract from the main plot and not even glancing in the direction of a love triangle with Solo, and for that I applaud the writers.
Speaking of equal agency, the film does some wonderful things with its gender roles (that this article sums up pretty well). So many films would have used the 1960s setting to excuse putting the female characters in the background, but U.N.C.L.E has no time for that kind of lazy writing. Gaby is established as a three-dimensional character with her own skill set that makes her an integral part of the group. The main villain is Victoria Vinciguerra rather than her husband, and she proves herself a worthy adversary, not just hiding behind a group of henchmen like so many female villains do. It would have been so easy to make her husband the mastermind and Victoria merely some sub-villain for Gaby to face off against while the men handled the real danger, but instead U.N.C.L.E sets the bar for female characters in action films. Historical accuracy my arse. In fact, Gaby has entered my list of favourite film heroines, partially because she’s a badass car mechanic with no time for the men’s bullcrap and partially because her dancing is adorable.
That article I linked to earlier pretty much sums up my feelings about The Man From U.N.C.L.E actually. It’s fast paced explosive tongue-in-cheek fun and the critics who claim it’s bland are entirely missing the point. The Man From U.N.C.L.E wasn’t made to be a cinematic masterpiece. It wasn’t made for critics. It was made because spy thrillers have lost their joy, because everyone needs a hot-tempered KGB agent with puppy dog eyes in their life, and because films seem to have forgotten how to have fun. And in my eyes, that does make it a masterpiece. So suck on that critics.