The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Christian Movie Review
[Note: after you read about Guy Ritchie’s stylish ’60s spy movie, if you’re a fan of U2 or C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy that explores dozens of Lewis books and U2 albums to answer one question: how do we find joy in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances?]
From a film craft perspective, Guy Ritchie fans will appreciate “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” It’s a return to form for him in some ways. (He is known especially for his crime/action movies like “Snatch” and “Revolver.”) As my friend Tim pointed out, “The Man From UNCLE” also feels like a director who is excited to set up a lucrative series for himself. The film, at times, has the vibe of being a very long commercial for all of the sequels that will likely come in the years ahead.
But, all cash-grabbing vibes aside, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is probably the most stylish spy movie made since Sean Connery introduced himself as 007 — even the subtitles are in a stylish Ultra font. The movie is very funny at times, and it really captures certain ghosts of the past — namely the post-WWII, Cold War spirits that once haunted our world with such force mixed with the high designer society of the late ’50s and ’60s. However, it also gives us yet another stereotype of the serial womanizer spy, which, in Hollywood, seems to be a prerequisite for any spy movie that has hip music and sharply dressed characters. We’ll get more into all of that, but first…
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: Two implied sex scenes, one in which the audience “hears” it over a spy’s bugging device. Partial nudity: a woman walks around and then leaves a bedroom only wearing barely there panties, and though the audience only sees her from the back, as she turns her breasts are partially visible. A man and woman wrestle/fight, and it turns quasi-sexual before the woman passes out from drinking too much. A man reaches up a woman’s dress to adjust a tracking device. Woman wear revealing clothing. The film makes use of plenty of subtle sexual innuendo that imitates the style of ’60s sex comedies infused with many of today’s typical Hollywood viewpoints about sexuality. The film casually glorifies sex outside of marriage.
[Honest Disclaimer/Tangent: Let me explain what I mean by “casually glorifies sex outside of marriage.” This might come across as sermonizing and it will be a major tangent, but, after including these comments for years in these reviews, I just want to finally clarify what I mean. The Bible teaches that God created sex to be a wonderful, joyous thing within the parameters of the covenant commitment of a healthy marriage; but without a covenant commitment it can deteriorate into a throwaway consumer-good — something that creates consumer relationships instead of enduring covenant relationships. (For example, couples begin to use sex as a consumer good to “market” themselves to their partner and keep the relationship going; or they have a “what’s in it for me” approach toward their sex life like a consumer shopping for a product). But sex, to quote the pastor/author Timothy Keller, was always meant to be a sacrament — an external sign/symbol of an inner, selfless commitment that you’ve embraced through covenant. That’s what I mean by the “casually glorifies sex outside of marriage” comment.]
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: There’s a torture scene that involves two characters getting shocked in an electric chair. The torturer is clearly deranged and loves torture for the sake of torture. He shows a victim his photo album with grisly images of his past victims (though no direct views of gore like you’d see in R-rated movie — mostly implied or unrecognizable/vague images of torture). We see characters in the chair getting shocked momentarily and shaking/screaming/wincing. One of the bad guys burns to death when the electric chair accidentally turns on for too long, though there is no gore or detailed shots of the death. Several characters are shot and killed. A character is blown up by a missile. A few hand-to-hand combat scenes, including one between a man and a woman that turns quasi-sexual (though it doesn’t go anywhere).
Language: One crude term for female anatomy. One a-word, d-word, h-word.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: The spies drink often, in private and in several social settings. Various characters get drugged at different times and knocked unconscious.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Henry Cavill (Superman from “Man of Steel”) plays the American CIA agent. He has the most deliberate American accent I’ve heard. It’s probably because Caville is actually British. He pulled off a fantastic American accent, and his careful, deliberate attention to it gave his character a comical matter-of-fact-ness at times.
Guy Ritchie does interesting things with color. The KGB spy character, for example, has one particular musical track associated with certain moments of psychological turmoil — we hear a tempest of strings followed by the thundering of boots marching, like the Red Army marching in his head — and deep shades of red accompany him in many scenes, especially when his darker side is being emphasized. They sort of bathe the character in the colors and sounds of the Soviet Union. They do the same thing with the American CIA spy — bathed in cool blues, whites, reds, and designer suits as if the American flag were in a fashion shoot for late ’50s, early ’60s American men’s fashion.
An emphatic desire for fashion and a stylish collage of grooving retro music — some of it a little out of place from the film’s time period — dresses the film as a w
All that stuff was interesting, but I’m a sucker for Cold War spy movies. That was what I was excited to see. I love period spy movies set in the mid-20th century. In some ways they really capture that whole spirit in fresh ways. The plot moves slow at times, but as the spies develop their relationships with each other, the film grabs you and keeps you interested for the rest of the ride. It’s no “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” as far as spectacle, but “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is a smart spy geopolitical thriller that delivers memorable style — certainly one of the best action movies of the year in terms of film craft/entertainment.
Entertainment value/film craft rating for “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”: [usr 7]
Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Social Commentary, the Question of “Spiritual Edification,” Etc.
Like many spy movies, many of the characters are “doing good” for selfish reasons. The spy world in movies is all about “what’s in it for me and my country” and the universal question that governs all alliances: “do we share the same interests? Yes? Okay, then I won’t eliminate you.”
But as the film develops, each of the spy characters develop genuine affection and commitment to one another on a personal level. It’s not overly sentimental; it’s more subtle and playing-it-cool, but the arc from self-centeredness to others-centeredness is noticeable in some scenes for some characters — especially with the KGB agent, whom they make the most sympathetic, surprisingly. At the center of the film is the rivalry between the CIA and KGB spy.
Beyond that, what we see is all of the dynamics and worldviews of the Cold War playing in the background like the white noise of elevator music. The film never pontificates or makes any big statements about why nations were doing what they were doing — with a few exceptions when we see American presidents speaking on TV and when we see how cruelly the Soviet Union has treated some of its KGB agents — and the film avoids the big questions on purpose. It’s more interested in the nuances of the characters in the foreground (and what they were wearing).
My first impression, as I walked out, was that the film is more style than substance. I don’t remember walking away with any profound, thought provoking questions or messages from the film or big realizations about how a character overcame some internal flaw and found transformation and redemption. It’s mostly about action, clothes, music, and clever Guy Ritchie techniques for unfolding plot and revealing facts to the audience.
For Christian readers who wonder about a film’s “spiritual edification” factor — i.e. answering the question, “Is it adding something of value to my walk with Christ?” — here is my personal rating for “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”: [usr 3] NOTE: I realize this can be highly subjective. Christians draw the line for this at different places. I use a combination of the Parental Guidance and the Worldview sections for this rating, though it is subjective and informed by my own preferences. I’m sure many will find my rating too high while others will find it too low. As you read my reviews and get to know where I tend to fall in this area compared to your preferences, hopefully these ratings will become a useful guide for you.
Conclusion: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Will Likely Be Back
From the perspective of film craft, this spy movie is artful, thoughtful, and well-made in its aesthetics, pacing, and performances. It has a nice warmth in it as enemies learn to be friends, but there’s an emptiness to the whole thing. It’s a memorable, visceral/visual/audio experience, but the film feels a little hollow at its core.
It has very obviously set itself up to be another big spy franchise, however, so I expect that U.N.C.L.E. will be back.
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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