The Man From U.N.C.L.E Proves That Style Is Substance

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You want fun? You want fast? You want pretty? Go see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But while you’re there, you might get something more. This movie is a lesson on style, and how it can be much more than just gloss.

If you left the theater in the first twenty minutes, you might go with the impression that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is not a good movie. It’s not that the first twenty minutes are bad—the first chase scene impressed me with how well it used camera placement and audio cues to establish where every single one of the characters was in relation to the others at every point in time. The problem with the first twenty minutes of the film is they contain all the scenes in which we learn who the characters are, who they hate, who they’re going to fall in love with, and their dark emotional triggers. Although these scenes are dressed up a bit, they all belong in a conventional, mediocre movie.


The rest of the movie gives itself over to style. Some people think that style doesn’t include substance, but that’s because they mistake prettiness for style. Style is what happens when people deftly enjoy their own eccentricities—and it is plenty substantive. It means being creative, confident, surprising, and attentive to detail. It means we learn more about the two male spies when they’re bickering about women’s fashion than when they’re running down each other’s histories. And it means that we become most emotionally invested in the characters when they, and when the film, are playing around.

The set-up is simple. A certain Dr. Teller has perfected a way to quickly and easily make nuclear bombs. He has disappeared, but Gaby Teller, the doctor’s daughter and East Germany’s most stunning car mechanic, might be able to find him. Napoleon Solo, a crook-turned-spy, gets her over the Berlin Wall despite the fact that the two are pursued by the relentless Illya Kuryakin. But soon both Russia and America realize that stray nukes are everyone’s problem. The three have to team up to find Gaby’s father, to find any nuclear devices he’s created, to find his research notes, and, if necessary, to kill each other.


Yeah, judging by that summary, I wouldn’t be lining up to see this movie, either. But if I made my choice by looking at the movie’s supposed substance, I would have missed the scene in which Solo and Kuryakin finally become a team—a scene which plays out entirely without dialogue and had everyone in the theater literally screaming with laughter. I wouldn’t have seen the normally-tedious “break in” or “storming the enemy camp” sequences made fun and fast by divided screens and matched action sequences. And I wouldn’t have gotten to watch Hugh Grant take on the same mannerisms that turned him into the stuttering nerd in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and make them into something unutterably cool. That’s style.


Unfortunately, not everyone gets to be that weird and stylish. It’s not Alicia Vikander’s fault that Gaby Teller gets the worst of it. She arches a mean eyebrow, she does have one great weirdo scene, and she manages to keep a relatively modern character from looking anachronistic in the 1960s. In many ways, she’s the heart of the film. But while she keeps the plot moving along, she does it by playing the thankless role of the straight woman forced to deal with a pair of well-dressed lunatics. Let’s hope that she gets to let her freak flag fly more often in the next movie.

Because yes, after watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I’m very much hoping there will be a next movie. I want to see these characters pick out more clothes, snipe at each other about new little problems, and have even funnier action sequences. And, I guess, save the world—but that’s not really the substance of this film.