The Man from Unclever

The Man from Unclever (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

There was a moment part way through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when Morricone music swells on the soundtrack and I thought Quentin Tarantino does repeat himself. It’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) all over again.

Then I realised it was a Guy Ritchie film.

Still, Tarantino had been down to direct (and you can see why), but he did Jackie Brown (1997) instead, I suspect his best film. Soderbergh, too, but he did enough already with the Oceans sequence (and I like Soderbergh).

I remember liking Ritchie’s work very briefly because Lock, Stick and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) because it wasn’t Merchant fucking Ivory – but then we got a spew of London gangster movies which were clearly mockney heritage, mocknerage if you will. I saw Sherlock (2009) much against my better judgement and knowledge of London geography, and it at least scores over other versions by not being created by Moffatt.

So thirteen versions of the script in, we get American art thief and reluctant agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) sent to help Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape from Cold War Berlin – only Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is there to prevent him. Solo succeeds, or we wouldn’t have a film, only to find his new mission is to help her find her father because of, yanno, uranium bomb and has been given Kuryakin as a partner to help. So, it becomes a parable of détente – or it would do if it put a tenth as much of its channelling the 1960s-as-GQ fashion photo shoot.

Cavill’s Solo is no whatisname from The Thomas Crown Affair, he’s not even Lovejoy, although he’s looking like Connery-era Bond undercover with Don Draper. His delivery is so mannered that it’s a wonder he can maintain the accent – utterly baffling. Hammer has his moments, but he also has an unreconstructed pre-feminism masculinity to him that is uncomfortable to like. He also has to do Incredible Hulk impressions (although he never tells us not to make him angry). Kuryakin’s playing of chess reminds me that the film is partly dependent on the kind of plotting that I’ve most recently seen in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, 2015), where the protagonist can predict what his opponent will do twenty minutes ahead of him.

And then, at the end, you realise that the whole film is an origin myth, the killing of the Waynes, the biting of the spider, because God forbid we begin in media res. I do remember watching the original television series – and have a faint sense of a crush on one of the leading characters although I forget who – but to be honest I have no memory of the series itself. The point of the film is to get Solo and Kuryakin into U.N.C.L.E. – explaining the broken-backed narrative that is typical of the first film in most superhero franchises: acquire power, acquire vocation. The sequel will no doubt include two villains and the threequel will have them fighting their doubles.

All of this is to damn the film – which is just so by the numbers dull. You can see the Bond and the Harry Palmer bits and the Steve McQueen of The Great Escape and whatisname from Thomas Crown and moments of early Paul Newman and even The Italian Job without the minis or Benny Hill or Noel Coward. And those are all much better films.

The oddest thing is that the film is largely stolen by Hugh Grant and the thought that a spin-off with him might be more fun.

(It could have been worse. It could have been Tom Cruise as Henry Cavill.)

Paper Chase

Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015)

I’m pretty sure there are a couple of moments in Philip K. Dick novels – Time Out of Joint? Voices from the Street? – when a character looks at their world and thinks it’s all paper. Or at the very least a stage set. That idea is here in a speech given to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) in this YA film, looking over Orlando from the top of a skyscraper. She also appears to be a bit of a Dickian anima sprite, there to bring some excitement to the middle-aged protagonist.

Except that the protagonist is here a teen, Quentin or Q (Nat Wolff), best friends forever with fellow geeks or nerds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), all of whom are prematurely middle-aged. Well, apart from Ben, who is turned on by any woman he knows, including Q’s mother.

Maybe that is also middle aged.

Q and Margo are neighbours, once inseparable, but grown apart through high school, until one night she calls upon him to help her commit nine acts of revenge. I didn’t quite count nine, so perhaps there’s stuff we didn’t see, but it brings Q alive at last. But then Margo vanishes – leaving Q clues to find her with. He has a choice – go to the prom, graduate, go to university, graduate, becomes a doctor, get married, have kids and be happy or find Margo. You can imagine the choice he makes.

I’ve got a copy of The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which has also been filmed and is also written by John Green, but I’ve yet to read it. I should remedy this. This is one of those films that is cleverly structured to undermine your objections to it. Isn’t she a little too idolised? Check. Isn’t it a little too convenient? Check. If he gets the girl, then it’s a rather trivial film with the female as impossible yet winnable love object, with the emphasis on object. If she rejects him, is that any better? And I guess since Galaxy Quest, nerds winning has been a thing – and you could imagine Justin Long of that film and several dozen TV classics in two of the central roles. Actually, its pedigree probably includes The Sure Thing.

Radar’s character occasionally risks stealing the movie with his parents’ collection of Black Santas (an attempt to get into The Guinness Book of World Records) and the moment when he is given a heritage-not-hate t-shirt (a detail that presumably became ultra-satirical since the movie was made).

What makes me resist the film a little, however, is the first person narration. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that Q isn’t in so I quibble a bit at that, but mainly I’ve a sense of being told not shown. In a film such as Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), there is a distinct age difference between the narrating self and the narrated self – which can bring pathos or irony or nostalgia according to taste – but here I felt I was being instructed. The director or script writer didn’t trust us and that’s a shame.