The real stars of Guy Ritchie’s remarkably stylish, but sadly shallow The Man from U. N. C. L. E., without a doubt, are composer Daniel Pemberton and costume designer Joanna Johnston. A highly-entertaining celebration of the Cold War era — with all its glamour, fashion, style, intrigue, espionage, gadgetry, mystique, music and much else — the film is a veritable feast both for the eyes and for the ears.
Pemberton’s retro score uses modern recording techniques to create music that is simultaneously dramatic, jazzy and charming. He employs the harpsichord, chimalong, drums, organ, guitar and bass flute to create an original score that never falls to the background, competing with — and occasionally outshining — the beautiful actors on screen. The bold and striking song The Drums of War uses 24 percussion instruments, each tuned to a different pitch, to create a mysterious and thundering sound hitherto unheard in cinema. Pemberton’s employment of bongos, castanets, congas, hochets, rototoms, shakers, timbales, and a plethora of other instruments to create a single coherent song is masterful.
Likewise, Johnston’s on-point costume design, like Pemberton’s score, does not take a backseat to the action on screen, but is instead an essential element in the film’s perfectly tailored and elegant look. Johnston creates four individual and distinct styles, one each for the film’s four primary characters, and uses colours, lines, silhouettes and structures to highlight, if not define, the characters. The film’s finest performance — that of Elizabeth Debicki as the villainous Italian aristocrat Victoria Vinciguerra — would not have worked without Johnston’s sartorial touch.
Ritchie’s big screen version of the 60s television series of the same name retains the main characters of the series and keeps the story in its original time period. American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to work together as a team to save the world from nuclear destruction. Their mission requires them to locate a former Nazi scientist who is being forced to build a nuclear device by the evil Victoria Vinciguerra. They plan to do so with the help of the scientist’s estranged daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who works as a car mechanic in Berlin. The spy duo needs to wade its way through a few double-crosses and a lot of action before they can stop Vinciguerra from selling an atom bomb.
Ritchie’s visually delectable but intellectually vacuous film has three brilliant scenes. The first takes place in an outdoor cafe where the two agents are briefed about the details of their secret mission in a decidedly public setting. The fact that their conversation can be heard by everyone in the cafe creates the setting for a truly funny visual gag. The second scene takes place in an upscale boutique where Solo and Kuryakin have a seriously silly discussion about wearing a Paco Rabanne belt with a Christian Dior dress. The third scene involves Teller springing into a spontaneous dance for Kuryakin that ends in the two wrestling each other on the floor. Intensely erotic, the scene has both the actors fully clothed.
Such brilliant scenes, alas, are few and far between and the film seems content with showing exceedingly beautiful actors wearing extraordinarily glamorous clothes in magnificently exotic locations, and with crafting some particularly stylish action sequences, replete with vintage cars, scooters, boats and helicopters and set to wonderful music. That makes for a film that is entertaining but lacks substance; one that does not take itself too seriously. Audiences are likely to enjoy it more if they don’t take it too seriously either.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 30th, 2015.