Critics are already writing off Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the embodiment of milquetoast, but they’re missing the point. In U.N.C.L.E, Ritchie isn’t creating a flashy spy movie; he’s bringing you into an alternate history much in the same vein as Watchmen and Inglourious Basterds. Only instead of digging into provocative what-ifs about wars and world leaders, the thought-experiment Ritchie poses is a simple one: What if everyone in the ‘60s were gorgeous and ‘60s gender politics weren’t a thing?
This question might seem vapid, but there is an endearing pureness to its ease. What do we want in summer movies? We want to laugh. We want to look at pretty people. We want to watch some shit blow up. We want all this, but we also want to leave the theater without feeling like we’ve lost brain cells. It’s a tricky balance — for summer’s current offerings, Vacation delivers more weak chuckles than laughs, Pixels fails on the brain cell front, Trainwreck is hilarious but loses some steam halfway through, and Mission Impossible doesn’t appeal to those who don’t dig action movies. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. calls itself a spy movie, but don’t be fooled. Ritchie has created accidental magic.
The plot doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Because this is the movie we’d all have made when we were in high school, if we’d had the power and skill to make movies then. The action sequences are borderline cartoonish enough to please your inner kid, yet the snappy dialogue makes them engaging to even the most action-movie averse.
The film is essentially a live-action version of your teenage bedroom wall or school locker, if you plastered them with pinups or pages from glossy magazines. Whether you’re attracted to men, women, or inanimate objects, you will find something pretty to look at. Everyone in it is beautiful, even when they don’t need to be. Henry Cavill is not a bad actor, but his bone structure is so preposterously perfect that it’s impossible to buy him in most roles. But it looks like he listened to the career advice I gave him about that after he’d already made the movie. You’re welcome, Henry. As a suave, Connery-Bondesque spy in the winkingly self-aware U.N.C.L.E., he’s finally found a role he’s uniquely suited to. Henry Cavill needs to always play characters with names like Napoleon Solo. It suits him. In fact, he should just consider changing his name to Napoleon Solo.
His co-star could have easily been more homely in the vein of most buddy cop movies — after all, they can’t both be “the ridiculously handsome one.” What kind of world would that be? Guy Ritchie’s beautiful alternate universe, that’s what. Ritchie strove for better than your average buddy-cop fare in his selection of human Ken Doll Armie Hammer. Hammer is at his self-serious best in a performance that rivals his breakout role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network.
Any other filmmaker would stop at two preposterously attractive leads, but not Ritchie. Random throwaway roles are equally peppered with people who are far more beautiful than they need to be: David Beckham has a cameo as a projectionist because why shouldn’t all projectionists be David fucking Beckham? The villain’s sidekick was an actual Armani model. Because why the hell shouldn’t he be? Why aren’t all villain sidekicks Armani models? These hard-hitting questions are truly not asked enough. And as for the villain, most spies’ nemesis don’t have to be nice to look at.
But Man From U.N.C.L.E. strives for deeper things. This is the villain, and she wears those outfits and that makeup, which accentuates her glorious sneering, and she strikes poses like she’s on the cover of Vanity Fair for the entire movie, because why not.
Speaking of the villain, she’s a woman and nobody makes a thing of it, because why should they? In Guy Ritchie’s alternate-universe version of the ‘60s where everyone is beautiful, ‘60s gender norms are not a thing. Women wield power and nobody comments. Women are (beautiful) mechanics who boss men around while the men argue with each other about fashion.
Like all action movies, the character’s backstories are kind of an afterthought, but you’ll have so much fun watching that it doesn’t matter. And U.N.C.L.E. contains enough of Ritchie’s signature flash-cuts that every time you stop to ponder squishy logic or clunky character beats, Ritchie is a step ahead of you. For example, this scene is a hell of a lot of fun to watch…
…but your inner adult might fight with your inner teenager and say, “That seems preposterous! Wouldn’t they capsize or wouldn’t someone fall out?” And no sooner does this thought occur than Cavill’s character does fall out, subsequently leading to one of the best scenes in the entire movie that I won’t spoil.
Critics have called U.N.C.L.E the kind of movie you’ll forget about the instant you leave the theater, and it’s true that it’s no Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave, but it’s not trying to be. You’ll leave the theater with the same feeling you get when you pass an attractive person on the street and they shoot you a smile: Your micro-interaction was ultimately meaningless and based on a surface-level impression. Still, be damned if it didn’t brighten your day.
Now bring on Guy Ritchie’s insane next project.