Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply underappreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption with a look at The Man From U.N.C.L.E.!
Guy Ritchie is not so much a filmmaker as he is a film genre unto himself; a “Guy Ritchie Movie” inevitably delivers generous helpings of zestful energy and high-strung action sequences that teeter deliciously between blustering and campy. Cue: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie’s 2015 spin-off from the 1960s television series of the same name, which takes all of the above ingredients and whips them up into a Cold War-era spy movie.
There’s also some token stereotypes of male bravado, of course, but when the two macho leads are played by perfect human specimens Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer – both of whom embrace their roles with self-aware panache – it’s easy to buy into the fun. (Bonus points for a David Beckham cameo to complete the trifecta.) Especially because the women in this film – one played by rising action star Alicia Vikander and the other played by the always elegant Elizabeth Debicki – kick their asses at every turn.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E ratchets up the tension right off the bat, with Cavill’s suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (believe it or not, this delightfully absurd name originated before Star Wars… but, uh, after the French Revolution) discovering a meticulously hidden listening device while trading barbs with no-nonsense auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Vikander) in her East Berlin shop.
The plan was a low-key extraction, but when Solo realizes they’re being tailed by a very tall human in a turtleneck, the extraction morphs into a full-speed, frenetically choreographed car chase which eventually ends with Solo and Gaby ziplining across the Berlin Wall. As one does.
A rollicking, well-paced action sequence as the first scene of a film can really set the tone: think the Joker’s bank heist in The Dark Knight, the space battles that open up both Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and the first fight in Guy Ritchie’s own Sherlock Holmes.
Here, the action instantly draws in the viewer while also teasing the rest of the film as a dance between nostalgia and postmodernism, a duet between humor and satire. Sure, it’s nonsensical that Gaby drives like she’s been training as a Fast and Furious stunt double her whole life, but by that point you’re beyond caring, because man, is it cool to watch those two cars pirouette along a conveniently empty sidestreet, hinting at the unlikely team-up that is to come.