“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (PG-13) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Another 1960s TV spy series gets the big screen treatment following “Mission: Impossible” with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a Guy Ritchie film that oddly enough, doesn’t feel much like a Guy Ritchie film. Far less gritty and stylish than Ritchie’s previous work (the writer-director’s recent movies include the underrated “RocknRolla” and the hit “Sherlock Holmes” films), “U.N.C.L.E.” is sustained by the undeniable presence of Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and to a lesser extent, Hugh Grant.
“Man of Steel” star Cavill slips comfortably into the role of Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn on the TV series), a dashing, Cold War-era CIA agent who reluctantly teams with Russian KGB Agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer, assuming David McCallum’s role from the series) in a bid to stop a mysterious global crime organization from carrying through with its world-dominating nuclear ambitions. Left with few people they can trust, including each other, Solo and Kuryakin must put their faith in Gaby (Vikander), the estranged daughter of the missing German scientist who designed the weapon, although it becomes quickly apparent that she may have an agenda of her own.
While the producers of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” are probably hoping the title alone with be a draw, at least for diehard TV fans and Baby Boomers (millennials sure the hell won’t know anything about the original NBC series), that small segment of the audience won’t make or break this reimagining of the “U.N.C.L.E.” as a film franchise. After all, the film is essentially an origins story that methodically introduces its characters on its way to forming the “U.N.C.L.E.” (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) by the conclusion of the film; serving merely as a springboard to what Ritchie surely hopes will be a franchise, a la “Mission: Impossible.” Name recognition or not, the film stands on its own.
One thing’s for certain: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” while not completely remarkable, fares far better than the first installment in the “Mission: Impossible” series, which was downright confusing. And while the tone is dramatically different than the Tom Cruise movie franchise (while there’s action and adventure here, it feels more like a tongue-in-cheek Roger Moore James Bond film), there’s no doubt Solo and Kuryakin can succeed with some more big screen adventures if Ritchie brings the sort of cinematic edge he’s built his resume on. With winning performances by Cavill, Hammer (although he’s a bit bland when toe-to-toe with Cavill) and Vikander (whose career continues to soar after “Ex Machina”) – as well as Grant in the pivotal role of British Secret Service honcho Alexander Waverly, and Elizabeth Debicki as the deliciously evil villain Victoria – the foundation is certainly there. If Ritchie doesn’t open things up a bit, somebody better hold the clapboard above his head until he says, well, “Uncle.”
“Straight Outta Compton” (R) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
While the gangsta rap music that fuels the movie is less than to be desired, there’s no question, the back story of the pioneering rap group N.W.A. is a fascinating one, if not for any reason for its lurid, behind-the-scenes look at the music business and its warts-and-all portrayal of man group members Ice Cube, Easy-E and Dr. Dre. Admittedly not a fan at all of rap, I am a fan of good stories, and there are enough in “Straight Outta Compton” – from accounts of crooked management and run-ins with police, to dangerous encounters with fearsome Death Row Records founder Suge Knight – to fill the film’s exhaustive two-and-a-half hour run time.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father Ice Cube in “Straight Outta Compton,” which tracks the origins of N.W.A. and its rapid rise to the top, giving the sort of voice to a group of ghetto youths that had never been heard before. But while stirring up controversy and calls for social change with inflammatory songs like “F— Tha Police,” based on their personal experiences with law enforcement – the group members become consumed by their own jealousies, greed and mistrust of one another, leading to long-running feuds with each other and people close to their inner-circle, and the group’s eventual demise.
The three leads in “Compton” are outstanding. Jackson is a dead ringer for his dad – the lyricist – with maybe less of a scowl; while Corey Hawkins is given the most range to play with as the group’s easy-going creative force who eventually develops the balls to stand-up to a highly volatile Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Jason Mitchell shows the most vulnerability as the group’s money man and leader Easy-E, who puts his unwavering trust in his shifty manager Jerry Heller (the always great Paul Giamatti).
The timing of the release of “Straight Outta Compton” is almost frightening in a way, because the film – while not afraid to portray its leads as deeply flawed individuals – plays heavy on the rifts the group had with police. The specter of Rodney King looms heavy over the film, as real-life footage of the beating and subsequent riots after the verdict acquitting the police officers appears prominently.
There’s no question the group’s surviving members and director F. Gary Gray wanted to make a statement with “Compton” in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore; and one can only hope that the likes of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre will step up with voices of reason should the movie – and the revival of “F— Tha Police” – galvanizes people in the wrong sort of way. For N.W.A. in “Straight Outta Compton,” anyway, the whole idea of their music was about freedom of speech – not the freedom to destroy and wreak havoc. If the film teaches us anything, it’s OK to be angry about perceived social injustices, so long as it’s not in a destructive sort of way.