The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or, alternately, writer/director Guy Ritchie’s audition to helm the next James Bond picture, and a damn good one at that – similar to the Bond films of the early 1960s, U.N.C.L.E. favors atmosphere, a sense of place, intrigue, and clever banter over the bombastic set-piece spectacle of most modern day action movies. I know labeling it as a “Bond audition” is crude and reductive – make not mistake, this is a classy, funny, and most importantly gorgeous picture. It’s an exercise of style over supposed substance (although I’d argue that style is substance), and that’s the whole point – in this fantastical espionage world surface and style and appearances are everything. The three leads are constantly putting up facades, pretending to be someone they aren’t – they’re performing. In a film entirely about surfaces and sexiness (these spies might as well be fashion designers with how often they discuss proper attire, and how impeccable they look in said attire) it’s appropriate that Ritchie and cinematographer John Mathieson concentrate entirely on aesthetics. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is impeccably crafted, with a soundtrack is to die for.
Indeed, the film is much more about the intrigue of location, about charismatic banter, and about Henry Cavill’s three piece suits than it is about explosive action (although the action we do get is quite good). Even the climactic chase sequence, which does hit with a gut-punching immediacy, seems to exist only to have Daniel Pemberton’s infinitely cool music play over it, further proving my point. Everything in U.N.C.L.E. is on and about aesthetics – on the surface. Even the homoerotic undertones that linger unspoken in subtext of past films are brought to the surface here, both in the script (at one point Cavill’s Solo asks Armie Hammer’s Kuryakin, “do you want top or bottom?” in reference to a pair of locks that need picking) and visually in the suggestive ways that Cavill and Hammer are bunched together within the frame. Alicia Vikander, mysterious and magnetic as always, rounds out the trio, all written and acted splendidly that moments of true character, those all-too-brief glimpses below their facades, are that more affecting.
Drink in the costuming and the wit and the intrigue and the production designs and the locations – there’s as much spectacle on display here as in any floating city or twirling helicopter. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a gorgeous aesthetic assault, oozing cool from beginning to end, and every frame is a visual treat – if we’ve come to the point where “eye candy” is cited as a detriment, I think it’s time we all read a book instead.