The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

(2015) Spy Action (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, David Beckham, Julian Michael Deuster, Peter Stark, Pablo Scola, Andrea Cagliesi, Peter Stark, Simona Caparrini, Joanna Metrass. Directed by Guy Ritchie

The 60s were an interesting era. While most people associate the last half of the decade of the era with the counterculture, evolution of rock and roll, protests and rioting, the first part of the era was something completely different. It was a time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the New York’s World Fair, of great stress and great optimism. It’s a time when the Beatles and Burt Bachrach co-existed on the charts, and style still held more than a trace of elegance and grace. It was the golden age of spies, with James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm all fighting the menace of Evil Empires and Megalomaniacs bent on world domination – or destruction. It was the age of U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a former war profiteer caught and sentenced to prison. However, the C.I.A., recognizing that his skills are superior, intervenes, allowing the sentence to be commuted – so long as he works it off for the Agency. Solo has become one of the most respected and successful spies in the business. Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) is a KGB agent with incredible athleticism, brute strength and a temper more explosive than Vesuvius.

They butt heads when Solo tries to smuggle a pretty East German auto mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin and Kuryakin is  told in no uncertain terms to stop them and he turns out to be pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, but nonetheless Solo gets the girl out of the Soviet zone.

As it turns out, her Uncle Rudi (Groth) works for Vinciguerra (which means “Win the War” in Italian), a sketchy Italian multinational corporation that may have her father, a nuclear physicist who may have discovered a means of making nuclear bombs portable. For a third party to have such destructive power at their fingertips is intolerable both for the Americans and the Russians so they decide to send their best men into the fray and get the technology for their own countries.

They will first have to get past Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), the twisted de facto head of the company and her vicious brother Alexander (Calvani), more thugs than you can shake a stick at and their own mutual suspicion. The game of spying has become even more complicated and confusing than ever.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, this is based on a hit TV show from the 60s but unlike the former film franchise, the filmmakers have elected to keep the film in the same general time period as the TV show which to my mind is a brilliant idea. The era is perfect for the story; they just don’t do urbane the way they used to, and Napoleon Solo is nothing if not urbane.

I like the casting in the leads but oddly enough, I’d have liked the casting better if Cavill and Hammer had switched roles. Cavill, I think, has a darker side to him than Hammer does and Hammer, who grew up not unfamiliar with the country club lifestyle, would have made an extremely convincing Solo. But then again, Hammer is a big fellow and that might not have jibed well with the Saville Row ladies man that was the American spy. Then again, David McCallum was a much less physical specimen than Hammer and still made an extremely effective Kuryakin in the TV series.

Ritchie, having done Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, has created a new niche for himself after escaping the old one. He is able to re-create the early 60s – 50 years gone now – by making the setting timeless places, mostly in the Old World. He uses vintage clothing as well as recreations to clothe his actors, although his screenwriters don’t quite have the idioms down – phrases like “skill set” and “price point” are phrases from this decade and not that one, and one would have wished the writing had been a little more careful in that regard. Comes from having young whippersnappers doing the writing (actually co-writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie are two and eight years younger than I, so shows you what I know).

Vikander has become a hot property and this movie isn’t going to do anything to cool her down. These are the types of roles perfectly suited to growing a career; even though the movie is coming out in August, it’s still a major studio release and thus she’s going to get plenty of attention. The movie is pretty lightweight, true and so is the part although it is the most complex role in the movie but this isn’t meant to be John Le Carre; it’s light and frothy and Vikander wisely plays it that way.

And that’s really the draw for this movie; yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the genre and yeah, it’s a pretty overcrowded field this year with James Bond waiting in the wings still, but that’s all good. When I was a kid, I used to watch the reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and eagerly read the paperback novelizations of the show. Hey, my parents loved it so who am I to disagree with an endorsement like that? In any case, this is a throwback to an earlier time well-executed in every way. Think of it as a cold Pepsi on a hot August day; perfectly refreshing and very welcome.

REASONS TO GO: Perfectly set in the period. Effervescent.
REASONS TO STAY: A few anachronisms here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of action, some partial nudity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Solo removes a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the place settings on it, he actually does that trick, being trained by a British variety show performance who specializes in the stunt.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: People Places Things

Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III

MacGruber


MacGruber

"I'm Hutch. So where's Starsky?"

(2010) Comedy (Rogue) Will Forte, Val Kilmer, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe, Maya Rudolph, Rhys Coiro, Andy Mackenzie, Jasper Cole, Timothy V. Murphy, Kevin Skousen, Jimmy G. Geisler, Chris Jericho, Mark Henry, MVP, The Great Khali, Kane, The Big Show.  Directed by Jorma Taccone

When the world needs saving, a hero must rise. Sometimes, when there are no heroes available, you must make do with what you’ve got.

MacGruber (Forte) is a former Navy SEAL, Army Ranger and all-around go-to guy when the world is threatened. However, after the murder of his fiancée by the notorious bad guy Dieter von Cunth (Kilmer), he has retreated to a monastery where he has resided the past fifteen years.

But von Cunth has reared his ugly head again and has captured a nuclear weapon which he is threatening to detonate in our nation’s capital. Only one man can stop him – and that’s MacGruber. Colonel Faith (Boothe) dispatches gung ho Lt. Dixon Piper (Phillippe) to fetch him and once MacGruber learns that von Cunth is involved, he’s all in.

MacGruber assembles a crack tam of operatives but accidentally gets them all killed, so he must settle for Piper and Vicky St. Elmo (Wiig), a former superspy who has turned lounge singer in hopes of forgetting her troubled past and the torch she holds for MacGruber, a torch still burning brightly.

However, as each attempt to foil the plot fails miserably, it’s beginning to look more and more like Washington is toast. MacGruber will have to find that inner hero – or else millions of lives may be snuffed out.

This started life as a series of five-minute SNL sketches that spoofed the old 1980s action series “MacGyver,” which was once a cultural touchstone with a hero that was able to extricate himself with odd household items. Kind of like the Science Guy meets a gun-phobic James Bond (MacGyver hated guns and never used ‘em) but in the last 20 years, the show has fallen out of favor. Younger viewers of SNL could be excused if they didn’t get the initial references.

Taccone, like Forte Wiig and Rudolph, also got his start on SNL doing short films (although not the MacGruber ones). There is a sense that the movie is padded; several jokes are repeated more than once, like a bit about a celery stalk in the buttocks (don’t ask). It wasn’t funny the first time and it wasn’t funny any of the following times either. Nobody ever said repetition was the soul of wit.

Forte is ok as MacGruber; the hair, flannel shirt and vest are pure 80s kitsch. It’s not the best role in the world to tackle – spoofs don’t really offer a whole lot of acting opportunities to be blunt. Still, Forte is likable enough even though MacGruber is an idiot; that’s kind of the down side of movies like this – being an idiot is sustainable only so long.

I am a big Powers Boothe fan and it was nice to see him in a role on the big screen once again, even in a movie like this. Ditto for Kilmer who was once one of the most promising leads in Hollywood but has made some poor role choices and has mostly been relegating to direct-to-home video schlock of late.

There are some action sequences straight out of the 80s action movie playbook, nothing to write home about but on the other hand nothing that makes you groan out loud either. You’re not going to be disappointed but you aren’t going to be doing much fist-pumping either.

There are those who love this kind of stuff and sure, there were enough jokes that worked that allowed me to write a review instead of writing it off. However there aren’t enough to give it much of a recommendation beyond to those who love raunchy spoofs – and this is plenty raunchy, believe you me.

So definitely an acquired taste – but not a taste I’ve acquired, so take my low rating with a grain of salt. Wiig would do so much better in this year’s Bridesmaids and Kilmer was better in movies like Real Genius.  Unfortunately, this isn’t as good as either of those movies no matter how you slice it. Even MacGyver couldn’t figure a way out of that one.

WHY RENT THIS: Forte captures the 80s action vibe nicely. Always good to see Boothe on the big screen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An SNL skit padded out to feature length. Just not funny enough to sustain a full length feature. 

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material is a bit crude, there’s some violence, a bit of nudity, some sexuality and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are six active (at the time of filming) WWE wrestlers in the cast, the most ever in a single film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.3M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Incendies