Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." centers on CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Kuryakin. Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons andtechnology. The duo's only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.
Director Guy Ritchie's 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' is another in a long line of attempted reboots of once-popular television series. In this case, the series starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (neither of whom, sadly, are given cameos here) as a CIA and KGB agent, respectively, who team up to stop the bad guys. In this update, Vaughn's role of Napoleon Solo is taken over by the Man of Steel himself, Henry Cavill, while the role of Russian Illya Kuryakin is given to The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer.
I'll discuss this a little further along in my review, but 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' is definitely a movie where style is much more important (seemingly) than substance, so the actual story here isn't very complex at all – although the filmmakers try to present it that way. Solo is an ex-thief who avoided his sentence when the American government realized his skills were too valuable to keep behind bars. While Solo's best spy skills lie in his intelligence, wit, and way with the ladies, Kuryakin is more of a physical presence, ready to fight at the drop of a hat but having much less capabilities when it comes to social skills.
The movie opens with Solo in East Berlin to transport Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a nuclear scientist, safely out of the city. It is suspected that her father is being forced to develop a nuclear bomb for a shady organization, and in the process of evacuating Gaby, she and Solo are chased by Kuryakin who is also under orders to retrieve her. After a long (too long for a movie that runs under two hours) car chase, Solo gets away, only to meet up with Kuryakin the next day and learn their respective governments want them to work together to try and find the rogue warhead. The trail will send them to Rome, and they're taking Gaby (who has a few secrets of her own) with them, with her posing as Kuryakin's fiancé.
The best aspect of the movie is the way Ritchie and company have tried to make things look and feel like a 1960's spy movie. Yes, there's a lot of similarities between what we see here and what we saw in those early James Bond films with Sean Connery. While Cavill's Solo may have the dashing looks of a young Connery, his dry wit and dead-pan humor is strictly Roger Moore. Meanwhile, the musical score (both original material by Composer Daniel Pemberton and songs from the period) helps add to giving the movie a genuine period feel to it.
But although 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' may look like an old Bond flick, it certainly doesn't feel like one. Although the visuals are great (the movie is well directed, and this is coming from someone who hasn't been very excited by Ritchie's prior work), the storyline here isn't very engaging, and the two lead characters, Solo and Kuryakin, are one-dimensional at best. In a world where comic book movies have delivered fleshed-out and emotionally tortured heroes, 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' feels like a comic book movie that actually proceeds like a comic book – there's no insight here to the Solo character at all, whose only real purpose in the movie seems to be to provide either exposition dialogue to move the plot along or to short quips that are slightly funny, but only in the sense that they bring a smile rather than a genuine laugh. Kuryakin is presented with equal shallowness, and only seems to be driven by a loyalty to country and an obsession with recovering his father's stolen watch (the details of which are laid out in the movie).
Because the movie doesn't do a good job getting viewers to care about the lead heroes, I found myself appreciating many of the sequences but only from a filmmaking standpoint. Instead of thinking things like "I wonder how Solo is going to get out of this mess?" I found myself admiring a particular piece of editing or a rather well-shot sequence. And sadly, that's what 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' amounts to – an exercise in cinematic eye candy, one that tastes good enough while you're viewing it, but provides no lasting satisfaction, meaning you're still hungry for actual substance once the credits begin to roll.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Man from U.N.C.L.E' fights its way onto home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The dual-layer DVD and 50GB Blu-ray are housed inside an eco-friendly keepcase, which also includes an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of the movie. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop. Both the Blu-ray and DVD are front-loaded with a trailer for 'Batman v. Superman' and a promo ad for Digital HD. The DVD also includes an anti-tobacco ad, a trailer for The 33, a promo the CBS TV series 'Supergirl', and an ad for Warners' disc-to-digital program. The main menu of the Blu-ray is a standard Warners' design, with a still image of the characters and menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa XT Plus and is presented here at the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Although the movie has been shot on digital equipment, the filmmakers are making an obvious attempt here to make the movie look very much like an old spy film from the 1960s. With that in mind, the colors have been ever so slightly dialed back, and there's an effort not to use too many bright or 'flashy' colors – viewers are treated to a lot of earth tones: greens, browns, tans, grays – with a splash of orange or red here and there.
Details and depth here is pretty good…not top-notch or reference quality by any means, but above average and about what you'd expect from a movie shot on Arri equipment. Black levels are strong and neither noise nor compression problems are an issue. Facial details, in particular, are well-defined throughout. One annoying issue is Director Guy Ritchie and Cinematographer John Mathieson's obsession with lens flares, which often become a distraction in many scenes. I wouldn't say they take it to J.J. Abrams levels, but they're obvious and intrusive throughout much of the movie.
Overall, this is a pleasant looking transfer, which should be pleasing to most HD aficionados. I detected no issues with aliasing, banding, or other problematic glitches with the video.
Note: Yours truly has not yet upgraded to the Dolby Atomos system (the featured track here plays in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for the rest of us), so I enlisted the aid of Atmos guru and fellow HDD reviewer Michael S. Palmer to check out 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Atmos track and report back. What follows are his impressions of the Atmos audio experience.
[NOTE: for this Blu-ray review, I used a Denon AVR-X6200W and Marantz MM7025 to power a full 7.2.4 KEF Q-series system consisting of one Q600C center channel, two Q900 floorstanders on front right and left, four Q300 bookshelf loudspeakers for side and back surrounds, dual 10' Q400 subwoofers, and four Ci200RR THX in-ceiling speakers handling front and rear height channels.]
While I'll leave comments on the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core audio track (Dolby Atmos folds down to 7.1 or 5.1 when Atmos-enabled AV Receivers are not detected) to Shannon, 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' is a surprisingly timid audio mix that rises to immersive during action sequences, but never fully roars. First, let's talk strengths. Dialogue levels are perfect; each actor's vocal performances are as clear in two-person scene as they are in action sequences. This is a good thing, given how much of the film is dedicated to banter. Daniel Pemberton's music is also a showstopper in the way it jumps between genres, evoking jazz, sixties-era tunes, traditional action movie score, choral movements, and one incredible thundering drum sequence. Sound effects themselves are nuanced, from the smallest light bulb to blazing gunshots. Surround sound activity is excellent, delivering precise effects placement the creates a 360-degree soundstage.
Where the mix stumbles – and this is when holding it up a very high bench mark that didn't exist until earlier this year – is height or elevation channel engagement, which is almost non-existent even in some of the action sequences. As we described in our Top Five Atmos Demos in 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.', there are some really great height elements – the aforementioned thundering drums, used as a transition, is a showstopper, as is one of the films later set chase sequences (where the music, roaring engines, thunder, and pouring rain) offer that true sense of hemispherical immersion. However, for the most part, we're dealing with a front-heavy sound mix that's a little more relaxed than other films in this genre. LFE levels are solid, but not life-changing.
Overall, 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' delivers a solid, but inconsistent sound mix that, when comparing it to similar genre exercise, is a little less aggressive than we might hope. That said, when this film kicks into gear, it offers some sublime demo material.
Thanks, Michael! I'd like to say hearing the track downgraded to 7.1 is a much better experience, but I wasn't overwhelmed with it there, either. While the dialogue comes off as crisp and clear, both the musical soundtrack and the ambient sounds of the track are pumped up louder than the spoken word, making for a slightly uneven mix. This is obviously a mix that is trying to show off the audio, but it seems unnatural and results in it being more of a distraction than it should be. This doesn't make this track different from many others I've listened to in the past (Sony, for example, is notorious for mixing their tracks with low dialogue versus amping up everything else), but most Warner Bros. releases I've checked out don't have this issue. 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' is an exception to that rule. Some may enjoy the 'showy' audio of this title, but I wasn't a big fan of this mix, despite the lack of any technical glitches.
In addition to the Atmos track, the disc also includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 English Descriptive Audio track, as well as 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish (Latin), and Portuguese. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish (Latin), and Portuguese.
While 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' is a great-looking movie with some nicely directed visual sequences from Director Guy Ritchie, it's also devoid of real character development or the ability to engage its audience in any meaningful way. The result is a title that's fun to look at, but one that doesn't leave you with any real desire to visit it a second time. Rent it.