The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”/”Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram
Story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram
Based on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” by Sam Rolfe
Produced by John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie
Music by Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography by John Mathieson
Edited by James Herbert

“Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation”
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie
Story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce
Based on “Mission: Impossible,” by Bruce Geller
Produced by J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Dan Granger
Music by Joe Kraemer
Cinematography by Robert Elswit
Edited by Eddie Hamilton

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Interestingly, in the summer of 2015, two big-budget, wide-release Hollywood feature films are being released—within weeks of each other–that are based on Cold-War era, 1960s television spy shows: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” based on the television show that ran from 1964 to 1968, and “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation,” the fifth film—believe it or not—in the “Mission: Impossible” film series that is based on the original television show of the same name, which ran from 1966 to 1973. Fortunately, fans of the original shows, fans of the “Mission” film series and fans of spy films in general can celebrate, because the current films, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation,” are indeed entertaining, enjoyable and solid, fun mid-summer and mid-August films to enjoy at the theaters. “Man,” especially and more so, because of its overall inventive, distinctive and unique atmosphere and perspective, and “Mission,” the lesser film, in spite of itself, due to just about everything being familiar, unoriginal and clichéd.

Yet, it must be noted, “Mission” somehow succeeds, thanks mainly to confident, assured direction by Christopher McQuarrie; incredible, jaw-dropping stunt work that anchors thrilling action sequences that could have died in lesser hands; a continually solid, funny and supportive-in-every-sense-of-the-word supporting cast that includes the always-reliable Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner and a surprisingly effective Alec Baldwin, who even succeeds here despite some often horribly clichéd and ridiculous dialogue; and a classy, shiny, lavish production design and art direction that ably displays the film’s foreign locations and spy-world sets of boats, mansions, hidden lairs, underwater security entrances and opera halls. “Mission” is also one of those films that shows how able direction, editing, pacing and timing, along with the aforementioned qualities, can greatly help a film succeed even though, viewed carefully through the parts that make up the whole film, it’s actually clichéd, unoriginal, somewhat ridiculous and more of the same. Yet, again, the film succeeds and stands as an entertaining summer popcorn entertainment.

Even better, though, is Guy Ritchie’s wholly inventive and original—and stand-alone—Cold-War era spy film “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which can proudly stand beside “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Ant-Man,” “Inside Out” and “Self/Less” as one of the better, smarter, clever and distinctive films of the summer of 2015. Unlike “Mission,” “U.N.C.L.E.” inhabits its own unique period-distinctive world that sets the film far apart from other recent fare, thanks to Ritchie’s smart, funny direction that pays homage to ‘60s-era editing, music, timing and stories; a similarly smart, funny and original script by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram that accomplishes the same homages to the Cold War; suave, savvy, stylish—and perfectly understated– acting by Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and a supporting cast of actors playing beautiful, deceptive women and sneering, psycho villains; and absolutely refreshing, welcome and excellently-executed 1960s-era period detail, from cars to sets to costumes to guns to room decorations to props to the also-refreshing and original ‘60s-evoking musical score by Daniel Pemberton.

There’s one filmic aspect that’s been sorely missing from the bigger films of the summer (and many summers, for that matter): period, or specific previous-time period-oriented, settings and stories. “Man” proudly, boldly—and entertainingly—takes viewers on a filmic time-travelling vacation trip back to that murky, mysterious part of the 1960s that strangely, weirdly—and, let’s face it, goofily and somewhat moronically—dealt with Cold War spy games, deceptions, lies, thefts, assassinations, kidnappings, defections, arms races, lies, cheating, scandals, treasons, torturing, imprisoning, agents, operatives, missions—and more spy games.

In real life, it was, generally, even on the deepest intellectual level, all a bit literally crazy—on both sides and for those in-between—but, yowza, what a boon to the entertainment world the real-life politicking, diplomatic dealing and spy gaming offered! While the Cold War in real life dealt with horrible realities that included murders, assassinations, kidnappings and dangerous situations (all depicted in the entertainment world, too) for real soldiers, agents and government intelligence and military workers, the political, military and intelligence dealings prompted a field-day of a far more glamorized, stylized, fictionalized—and incredibly romanticized—catalogue of spy movies, television shows, books, short stories, magazine pieces, parodies, skits, art works and even songs and poems for the cultural zeitgeist landscape. Of course, entertainment-world spies were everywhere in the 1960s: “Mission: Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “I Spy,” “The Prisoner,” the James Bond movie series, the James Bond books, the James Coburn “Flint” films,” “The Wild Wild West,” “The Avengers,” the Matt Helm books and film series, “Secret Agent,” “Get Smart,” “The Saint,” “It Takes a Thief,” John le Carre books “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”), and so much more. The spy-focused popular culture also included games, toys, puzzles, posters, collectibles, memorabilia, ephemera, clothing styles, catch-phrases, drinks, cars and all sorts of trinkets, gadgets and gizmos. Everywhere you turned—in real-life and in popular culture—it seemed, spies were everywhere.

Thus, we have the lasting impact of Cold War-era, 1960s-era spy popular culture popping up in two big-budget Hollywood feature films in 2015.

And “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” joyfully celebrates this period, with its period clothing, period mannerisms (a bit less rushed, less frenetic, less caffeinated styles, and sets and acting more stylish in customs, mannerisms and culture in general), funky period cars everywhere (it would be nice to know the budget line item for period cars for the film), period sets, props, furniture and electronic gizmos, and period music, as noted. Although these period-specific details are excellent and are the stellar work of a talented crew of production, set and art designers, costumers, make-up artists and set dressers, the film also rises above the normal due to Ritchie’s smart, funny direction, and Ritchie’s and Wigram’s witty script that includes at least half a dozen inventive, laugh-out-loud scenes that will stay in the memory banks long after the film ends.

Cavill and Hammer, as night-and-day, silk-and-iron-different American and Russian spies, respectively (yes, Cavill is a British actor playing an American spy and Hammer is an American actor playing a Russian spy, but in this film, both are great and funny, and it works, and the oddity, whether viewers are aware of it or not, just adds to the film’s funny layers and complex humor), obtain a genuine spy-mance chemistry that works on some type of quirky, odd, trust-but-mistrust, work-with-but-work-against manner. The characters, Cavill’s Napoleon Solo (one of spydoms great character names) and Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, are paired by their respective governments—despite both spys’ mutual distrust and slight dislike of each other at the outset—to work with the beautiful Gaby Teller (a captivatingly, stunningly beautiful Alicia Vikander) to find Gaby’s father, infiltrate a brutal, cold-hearted Cold War-era-like terrorist organization, and stop the organization from waging an underground war that could lead to world war, worldwide economic problems and general anarchy and terror.

Vikander, small, petite, mysterious, and coldly, calculatingly sultry, sensuous and deceptive, mixes these aspects of her character with her distracting beauty to add a great third wheel to the team of Solo and Kuryakin. Entertainingly, and humorously, all three characters distrust, dislike and continually disbelieve each other, adding another layer to the story and providing a constant level of conflict, suspense—and mystery—to the proceedings. The story is very grounded in Cold War sensibilities, to its credit; Cavill, Hammer and Vikander humorously and stylishly anchor the proceedings well; and Ritchie has a great time with cars, boats, chases, fistfights and gunfights amid his exotic British and Italian settings. And composer Pemberton is always there with a fresh take on movie scoring, simply providing one of the more original film scores of the year.

And there’s Hugh Grant—echoing, somewhat, Alec Baldwin in the current “Mission,” or Judi Dench or Bernard Lee in the Bond films—serving as the usual father/mother figure to the younger, swashbuckling secret agents to lend a bit of gravitas, stability and maturity to the story. Hugh Grant still looks youngish, but his calming presence provides a counter-balance to the younger actors, in a stabilizing manner. Baldwin does the same in “Mission.” It’s up to Grant to give one of the better explanatory lines in the film, stating just what U.N.C.L.E. stands for—the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

At the end of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”—it’s not giving anything away, especially in today’s film world—there’s a subtle suggestion that this film could be the beginning of a series–that Solo, Kuraykin and Teller could return. If subsequent “U.N.C.L.E.” films are as fresh, original and entertaining as this first film, then a future series is indeed welcome.

As for “Mission,” well, this another spy story for another time and place—namely, today’s time. It’s odd–as odd as some of the Cold War real-life missions and scenarios—that somehow lead actor and producer Tom Cruise has actually made and released—successfully—five—count ‘em, five—“Mission: Impossible” films, as none of them—count ‘em, none—still have dared to come close in style, atmosphere, feeling, comfort and aura to the brilliant original television show created by television mastermind Bruce Geller. The first mistake in the series could be the casting of Cruise, who despite his best efforts, never fully realizes his lead character of Ethan Hunt to the level that Peter Graves brought to the original Jim Phelps. And, although they are above-average, entertaining, good actors and they save the film, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner’s characters–as the rest of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF)—an American spy agency even more clandestine than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—don’t quite match the wits, humor, style and grace of the original IMF crew portrayed by Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Martin Landau, Leonard Nimoy, Leslie Ann Warren, Barbara Bain and Lynda Day George. That’s nothing against Pegg, Rhames or Renner, but a reflection more on the overall production and writing approach taken by Cruise, which seems to focus mostly on Hunt, and not on, as a whole, the work of the entire IMF team, which was one of the founding, leading attractive characteristics of the television show. Each episode, viewers got to enjoy and play along with how this multi-talented, incredibly brilliant team of spies worked together to foil various Cold War enemies. That’s there, somewhat, in the films, but, again, not at the same level as the television show.

The movies are often more focused, it seems, on large-scale, complex, loud, extended, big-budget action sequences, scenes and stunts—which is not necessarily a problem, because they are done well, and often done for real and without computer effects or camera trickery, and they do work and they are entertaining. But the stunts and action seem to often be done at the expense of intricately-designed and complex stories with an original take on spy games. Yes, the stories in the films can be deceptive, do have surprising twists and turns, do include the “Mission” trademark gadgets, gizmos, spy technology, electronic and computer wizardry and masterful disguises, but, somehow, again and again, it seems we’ve gone down this road before in many similar cars, on many similar motorcycles, in many similar helicopters, and even in similar underwater, high-rise or aerial locations and sequences.

In “Rogue Nation,” the IMF team is downgraded, Baldwin’s intelligence secretary Alan Hunley is out to eradicate the IMF for good, the IMF team, including leader Hunt, goes rogue to fight a band of terrorists out to create a new-world-order rogue nation, and they are fighting against time. The rogue nation—the always mysterious Syndicate—is out to do nothing less than prompt worldwide economic instability through the encrypted access of billions of hidden dollars and, in the meantime, kill IMF members. Hunt strives to disrupt the Syndicate’s plan, destroy the Syndicate, prove to Hunley and the U.S. government that the Syndicate is real, and restore Hunt’s reputation and the standing and operations of the IMF.

Yet, again, thanks to director McQuarrie, supporting actors Pegg, Rhames, Renner and Baldwin, and the aforementioned formidable crew of stunt men, stunt coordinators, action-sequences directors and choreographers and production and art designers, “Mission” is still able—five films out now—to entertain at a consistently high level—in spite of itself. Credit, also, must be given in “Rogue Nation” to actors Rebecca Ferguson as M16 agent Ilsa Faust and Sean Harris as Soloman Lane, the evil, scary rogue M16 agent who runs the Syndicate.

In many ways, a type of Cold War remains today, in 2015. In news reports broadcast and published on the day this review was written—Wednesday, August 12, 2015—some political analysts said one of the main countries that the United States has to fear, worry about and be cautious about in terms of unpredictability, threat levels and distrust is none other than…Russia. No joking there. As that is a terrible, yet quite actual, reality for 2015, coupled with the very real threats faced in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, from China and North Korea, and from violent terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, there likely will be no lack of modern-day Cold War-like spy stories, television shows, novels and films in the foreseeable future. That’s bad news in real life, but, alas, an odd good news for the entertainment and spy industries. Alas, even today, the Cold War still lives on, in fiction—-and in reality.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.