|Image courtesy of Warner Bros.|
For American moviegoers of a certain age, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." poses a unique challenge in managing expectations. First, there is whatever memory still exists of the original TV series. Personally, I have fading memories of watching the reruns in the early 1980s and generally recall it as the less impressive cousin to "Mission Impossible" and "The Saint" among the era's few shows serializing Cold War intrigue. Second, there is what we have come to expect of the spy thriller genre as a whole in modern cinema. Finally, there is what we have come to expect of Guy Ritchie.
With that said, the opening sequence of "U.N.C.L.E." is as good as any from each of those templates. Whatever you're looking for in a spy thriller's first scene, it's all there. And from there, it depends on what you're looking for next.
Those trained to look for the puppet strings will find them all too easily, beginning in the very next scene, in which Jared Harris, playing Henry Cavill's boss, convenes a meeting whose only purpose is to shove the premise of the movie down the audience's throat. Exposition is always a tricky business and how a movie script handles it tends to be the strongest signal of how adept the rest of the film will be in its execution.
In this case, the exposition scene accurately telegraphs what is to come: a story that lumbers through clunky dialogue, made clunkier by actors struggling to establish chemistry amid enough extraneous plot gimmickry to raise the question of who doesn't trust the audience to pay attention. Meanwhile, a contrived romantic tension between Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander raises the question of who doesn't trust the actors to do their jobs.
Unlike the ongoing "Mission Impossible" or James Bond franchises, "U.N.C.L.E" has not rebooted to set its story in the modern era, but rather sticks to its original 1960s setting. This is neither objectively good or bad, but does pose certain limitations to how action sequences proceed. Technological gadgetry, for example, is nothing like what we see in espionage fare with more contemporary settings, but then it shouldn't be. Other scenes - escapes from a high-security shipping yard and the villain's compound, for example - are impressive for what they achieve given their restrictive setup.
Now we come to expectations of director Guy Ritchie, whose involvement was the single reason I made an effort to see this in a theater. And I came out of it remembering two things: 1. I respect any artist's attempt to expand his or her repertoire and 2. expanding one's repertoire necessarily requires confronting new challenges whose outcome may be difficult to accept for those with preconceived expectations.
The Ritchie brand of action-oriented dynamism defined by "Snatch," "RocknRolla," "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and even "Sherlock Holmes" is without a doubt on display. But there is something about it in a spy thriller construct - or maybe just this particular spy thriller construct, with this particular script - that falls short of what he did when English gangsters and English detectives were at his disposal.
The closing sequence of "U.N.C.L.E." leaves open the possibility of this being the first of a new franchise. If there is a sequel, I'll give it one more try, with or without Ritchie in the director's chair. But I will definitely go in with lower expectations.