The Man from U.N.C.L.E. review: new franchise?

Guy Ritchie is like… so hot right now. At least, it seems so, after his career had hit a little blip right before the Sherlock Holmes films put him back on the map.

Then for his next trick he thought he’d turn his hand to the spy genre, specifically resurrecting a nostalgically adored ’60s TV show, The Man from UNCLE. Remembered fondly by those of a certain age, utterly unknown to those younger than that.

But no matter. Whether you’re young or old(er) most of us can get on board with a sexy cast dressed in gorgeous clothing, their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks as they swan around the globe foiling evil plots. Can’t we?

And if we’re talking tone (which we are now), this film sits somewhere between Austin Powers and Bond, the Roger Moore years, which is no bad thing. Or if you’re seeking a more modern reference, it would make a nice triple-bill with Spy with Melissa McCarthy and Kingsman, with Colin Firth; as you’ve never seen him before.

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Concerning story: we have handsome American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) trying to rescue pretty girl Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Germany, as he needs her help to get close to her nuclear scientist father who’s been kidnapped by an evil, Paris Hilton-esque woman wearing far too much jewellery. They’re aided by a handsome yet prickly Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), told by his superiors he’ll have to team up with the annoyingly smug American to complete his mission.

Ultimately this film isn’t really about plot. It’s about the laddiest of all laddy things, banter! And Cavill and Hammer do this pretty well, bouncing off each other and working effectively – if chaotically – as a team, despite their grudging reluctance. However, most of this film does feel like an intro to a franchise – as the studio would no doubt love it to be.

Do we have the spy version of Lethal Weapon on our hands? Too early to call. I wouldn’t be averse to a second film. It nipped along at a decent pace, looked great and had a killer soundtrack (as you’d expect from Ritchie), so giving these characters another mission wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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But on the downside, as far as quibbles go, I have two.

First, it’s 2015, and in this day and age Ritchie must surely have been able to give a lady of Alicia Vikander’s talents more to work with. She starts off ok then descends (slight spoiler) in the final third into classic, uninspired territory of the female needing to be rescued by the male leads. It’s tiresome and it would have been nice to mix this up. She had a frisson of chemistry with Armie Hammer’s character, so why couldn’t he have been the one needing to be rescued by her?

Secondly, despite me saying the story is incidental, the characters (and actors) still need something credible to sink their teeth into and give the audience a reason to care. For me, the story started well but lacked a bit of punch as it progressed. I found my attention wavering somewhat in the middle. (This never happend with Lock, Stock and Snatch – Mr Ritchie, take note.)

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In general though, it’s a fun ride. An easy, popcorn fest of a movie. Standout for me was probably Armie Hammer’s performance, although Hugh Grant does turn up at the end and almost steal it.

So go see it.

Turn your brain off and your smile on and soak it in.

Ex Machina: Lessons in playing God

Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.

With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

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The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).

Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.

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Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.

And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.

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As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.

And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.

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All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.

So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.

Trailer park: Focus, Mad Max, Ex Machina

As 2014 draws to a close I thought a quick look ahead to three rather exciting films out next year wouldn’t be amiss. (Obviously, there’s lots more, but for these little trailer park breakdowns, three is the magic number.)

Focus (In cinemas February 2015)
Will Smith and Margot Robbie (her from The Wolf of Wall Street) star in this rom-com-con, as it’s a film about a con artist who falls for his hot protégé. Based on the trailer, Robbie looks to be giving Amber Heard a run for her money in the old school Hollywood glamour stakes.

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Ex Machina (In cinemas April 2015)
Written and directed by Alex Garland (making his debut as a director) this films tells the story of a computer coder (Domhnall Gleeson) who thinks he’s won a chance to stay at the house of his CEO for a week, but is actually participating in an experiment involving artificial intelligence (namely, Alicia Vikander’s character).

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Mad Max: Fury Road (In cinemas May 2015)
Make no mistake, this film is part of a franchise. And there’s been a gap of 30 years between the last film and this one. Originally starring Mel Gibson, we now have Hollywood’s go-to guy for intensity as the lead, Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron is also thrown in for good measure, as the fantastically named Imperator Furiosa.

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