I absolutely loved this film. I enjoyed every second of it fairly unreservedly, and my opinion of it has gradually increased as it’s had time to percolate through my mind to the point where I am considering elevating it to the exalted ranks of films I’m going to see twice in the cinema. Not counting re-releases, that would put it in the same category as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Django Unchained. (Parenthetically, CT,HD has subsequently dropped out of my 10/10 bracket on the IMDB, and with the best will in the world TMFU isn’t a perfect score). I haven’t as yet read many reviews, but my prediction is that most critics are going to miss the thing this movie does perfectly and try to engage with it on entirely the wrong level, as exemplified by one of the most common quotes plastered on the posters: Guy Ritchie does Bond (or variants on that). Nothing could be further from the truth, this film is to Bond what Picasso is to Monet – a whole other thing.
One thing that critics have broadly gotten right in the reviews I have read is that there’s not that much point talking about the plot. It exists, it informs the action, it gets all wrapped up, it’s not quite nonsensical but it’s not Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy – it is essentially disposable. What critics haven’t talked about is why that’s okay for this film. The line taken so far has been that it’s so fun you lose focus, or are distracted out of asking the tough questions which will crack open the plot holes wide enough for Bond to jump a shark through. We have to take into account here the cultural context in which this film has been produced. This last year we have had a host of espionage thrillers such as Kingsman: Secret Service, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and spies have pretty handily infiltrated a host of other genres like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Fast 7. We are fairly much saturated with espionage and the basic genre ploys and tropes are second nature to anyone paying any attention to cinema of late. We’re at the point where the merest sketching of an espionage outline is enough to fill in the blanks, so there’s almost no point in bothering to do that anymore. To get anything new now, you need to toss the rulebook and so-called satires like Kingsman: The Secret Service and Spy want to think they’re doing that, but as I noted in my reviews at the time, they function perfectly as genre exemplars at the level of plot.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. actually takes the crucial next step in deconstructing the genre to abandon any real pretence that the plot matters as such, so that virtually nothing in the film can be derived or substantiated from the logic of plot. The constitutive story elements of the genre are more-or-less free-floating in an espionage melange, so that they can be enjoyed for themselves and not for the role they fulfil in a “story”. In lesser hands, that would be an emotionally incoherent mess, but in the super-stylish hands of Guy Ritchie, it becomes a genuinely intriguing genre pastiche that entertains and delights throughout.
I gave this 8/10 on IMDB, because it was a pure delight, but I’m going to need to see how it stands up to a second viewing.