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The Man From UNCLE (2015)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris

Written By: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram (also story), Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson (story)

Directed By: Guy Ritchie

The Shot

The Man From UNCLE pays stylish homage to lots of spy genre classics in the name of a single one.  Though the movie does pause to look in the mirror quite a bit, it’s a lot of fun, and a potentially good start.

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“We're struggling here.  Why don't you take a shot at him?”

“Somehow, it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do.”

Once upon a time – specifically, from 1964 to 1968 – Robert Vaughn and David McCallum brought the spy game to the small screen as the stars of “The Man From UNCLE.”  Half a century later, Hollywood has finally gotten around to dusting off the well-remembered name and bringing it to the multiplex, entrusting director Guy Ritchie to bring the characters of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakim…

…back to the year before “The Man From UNCLE” television series first hit the airwaves.  (That’s right, folks; you’re getting a prequel origin story, since the television show’s producers never bothered to air one.)

Frankly, it’s a brilliant move.  The Cold War is truly the Golden Stage for any espionage film to play on, and the era of the 1960s with a freshly minted Berlin Wall and recently concluded Cuban Missile Crisis to dance around is spy plot dynamite.  Tack on a bright 1960s fashion sense that still predates the hippie movement, and there is a lot of potential to write a very exciting, incredibly fun, and exceptionally slick love note to the espionage genre… and Guy Ritchie knows it.  Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of The Man From UNCLE.

To call The Man From UNCLE a self-aware film is to state to blatantly obvious; that is, after all, the director’s stock in trade.  But it is a very reverent self awareness that’s not quite as gonzo as, say, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and the attention paid to details both large and small is outstanding.  The treatment of classic characters, seasoned with a dash of modern sarcasm?  Well played.  The wit?  Sharp.  The fashion sense?  Top notch.  The Thunderball reference?  Absolutely smashing.  The plot?  Very well reasoned and delightfully twisted, done in a classic style that allows for the perfect tempering of disbelief while providing the bends and turns that the genre demands without jumping any (surprisingly absent) sharks.  The action?  Fantastic, with special recognition to the wildly enjoyable chase through Berlin.  The music?  Peppered with era-appropriate hits that play in a Tarantino-esque manner…

…and which often punctuate the main thing that prevents The Man From UNCLE from rising past “cool and fun” to “great.”  As previously noted, The Man From UNCLE is a very self aware film, and it can’t help but regularly pause in the middle of whatever it’s doing and stare at itself in the mirror, especially (though not just) when a jukebox-worthy tune takes over the soundtrack.  These moments are meant to be stylish – and they are, after a fashion – but they also stop the movie cold while it admires its own form.  (If you hear any muffled groans in the background, that’s the pace taking some major hits.  Speaking of hits, the often-revisited point of Illya Kuryakim being subject to “psychotic episodes” of extreme violence is sketchy at best, and feels “take-the-audience-out-of-the-moment” forced whenever it’s brought to the fore.)

Speaking of form, the cast appears to be quite aware that they’re not being called upon to act so much as they are to model their characters, and they do quite well with that.  Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) positively eats up the urbane thief attitude that The Man From UNCLE calls upon Napoleon Solo to wear, and while I’m not convinced that Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) has the chops to carry his own movie, he does fine as part of an ensemble that just asks him to cop a Russian accent and put a chip on his shoulder.  Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) doesn’t just wear her character; she wears the entire film, and that, in turn, helps everyone around her look even better.  And since the people are part of the set and all this movie really demands of its audience is to watch, that amounts to a major win.  (Thinking is optional, though certainly not punished.  I still love that Thunderball reference.)

Were it not for the regular breaks taken by the film to admire itself, I’d be happy to call The Man From UNCLE a great beginning to a promising franchise.  (Which may or may not end up actually coming to pass, since the movie got shellacked on its opening weekend by Straight Outta Compton.)  As it stands, it’s still a fun ride, and a good start.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2015

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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