After the release of Die Another Day (2002), the future of James Bond was in flux. Though the film had become the highest grossing one in the franchise’s history, Die Another Day tapped into a kind of ridiculousness that was, even for a series whose real life veracity was rarely ever of concern, unpleasant for most critics and fans. An invisible car, DNA replacement therapy, Madonna trying to act. In an effort to recall an old fashioned Bond, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade began to adapt Ian Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale, and, in the midst of a litany of legal issues regarding the rights to the series between MGM and Sony Pictures, (perhaps) inadvertently imbued Bond with a sense of what critics noted as world weariness. Casino Royale finally saw its release in 2006, and this new Bond colored by misanthropy was an element amplified by Craig’s style of acting, at once brutish and cognizant that the very anger and figiidty was itself a shield for vulnerability. This Bond was a hardened, human Double O, more aware of his sociopolitical climate, and of himself, than he had been before. This kind of disdain for his own iconography would continue to inform the subsequent films, becoming more and bitterer, angrier, and numbed, peaking in Spectre, where you get a sense that Craig (and the writers) don’t sincerely believe that Bond should even exist within a contemporary context.
So, while the evolution of the Bond films has grown grittier, darker (per Roger Deakins), dustier (per Hoyte van Hoytema), and even, if one is to believe the opening text of Spectre, deader, we enter a fantasy version of spying under the guise if “how it used to be”, but whose superficiality and very cleanliness is as indicative of the same sort of cynicism. Opening with a bunch of archival footage splashed in red, it’s not that images of Berlin being bifurcated is indicative of communism, but in sardonicism. It makes its “verisimilitude” stylish in a way that conventional filmmaking declares it shouldn’t be. Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s show, also not coincidentally conceived by Ian Fleming, The Man from UNCLE is selling a poisoned love letter to the past and present. (Even the font of its subtitles is funny!)
What’s in The Man from UNCLE is the opposite of what’s in James Bond, even in the recent aesthetically amplified iterations. It’s not shrouded in shadow in the same way that Skyfall is; it’s shot like an ad for Prada or Givenchy or Gucci or any other brand. It’s selling the idea that the past as something that’s real and something that can be confronted is actually irreconcilable. It’s evident in its crazy slickness, its cartoon sensibility, its discomfiting perfection. It literally glistens.
“Do you mind terribly id I borrow your car?” Napoleon Solo asks. It’s not particularly believable, because, while the motivation to acknowledge the existence of historical baggage is the same, it’s approaching it in a different manner. Henry Cavill, who is built as if perfectly assembled by a lab and whose cheekbones are as sharp as his sense of humor, is but a caricature wrapped around an idea. As with any good spy movie, its plot matters less than the context of its plot, and its context is that this is such a romanticized, idealized vision of the fast, the fakery in and of itself is message. There’s an archness to his elocution; a sly, just barely discernible knowing sparkle behind his eyes; an unfathomable paradoxical fakery and sincerity to his charm. What is the depiction of the past but a con job posing as a charming con man? He is explicitly performative in the best way. “You can’t be serious!” Solo says with incredulousness. Oh, but I am.
Guy Ritchie’s previous efforts in donning the past in contemporary garb as a way to poke fun at our romanticism of it permeates his Sherlock Holmes films, where the drudgery of Victorian England occupies an impossible space of grand and disgusting and his working class gangsters in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which remix London specificity and cinematic universality of the crime world. And while Holmes’ palette may have been more muted, its primary idea is not dissimilar to that of UNCLE’s: dress up the past in something palatable to reveal how impossible it is.
The core difference and biggest indicator of his evolution as a quasi-historical commentator is his very disinterest in action. Though it became a defining element of his films, informed heavily by his work as a music video director, he’s gone from slowing down the fighting to allow the audience to revel, to deconstructing its very steps, to barely shooting it in the first place, at least not without a wink. As Ilyia Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) fights a bad guy on a boat, Napoleon sits in a truck snacking on some things he finds in a picnic basket. He kind of looks over at the proceedings without much concern, something more transcendent of “devil may care”. Because he doesn’t, really. Because even he realizes how irreconcilable past and present are. Ritchie keeps his camera primarily on Solo, every so often cross cutting to Kuryakin. But Ritchie’s method of coverage and close up is as transcendent of devil may care as Cavill’s occasional glances.
And in an age of shipping Finn and Poe and Sherlock and Watson, the queer subtext that underlines Solo and Kuriakin’s dynamic (“I’ll take the top.” “Okay, I’ll take the bottom.”) seems to serve as the kind of wink reminiscent of the same kind that, again, permeates Craig’s Bond films. But as UNCLE understands surfaces and textures, it also understands a kind of heteromasculine performance that has always seemed so gay. It’s not only Cavill and Hammer’s vocal performances that are overtly the stuff of capital A Acting, it’s their very dynamic as supposed ideologies that are supposed to be intrinsically antithetical. That they are forced, by fate or by politics, to bond homosocially engenders a funny kind of gayness that’s like the ‘60s version of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, but with more guns. In its “desire” to be very hetero and very masculine, it becomes queerer. “The fault doesn’t lie in your performance,” purrs Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), in equally wonderfully hammy form. Au contraire, it’s the film’s very strength.
“America is teaming up with Russia… is this a joke?” scoffs Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). Yes, it is. Basking in a beauty that renders the plot completely irrelevant, UNCLE’s nearly fetishistic attention to aestheticism is exactly the joke that the film plays its entire running time, an addition to our conventional ideas of espionage ridiculousness. Its textures are so unreasonably immaculate, it makes you wonder. As Lauren Sarner suggests, The Man from UNCLE’s vision of perfection exists in a paradise where its “alternate history” functions like Inglourious Basterds: not merely as thought experiment, but a study of method in how to talk about the relationship between past and present. Ritchie’s method crystalizes as a film where its surfaces are about the attempt to be honest with the past is its very flaw. Debicki spits something else in the film: “I keep telling him to modernize, but he’s a hopeless sentimentalist.” To attempt “authenticity” or “veracity” in period films is basically beside the point, and attempts at that often are to a film’s detriment. Ritchie’s film attacks that very idea and its cultural relevancy as astutely as the Craig run of Bond films, both even suggesting that such icons of espionage only belong in the past anyways. Since the film is about the artificiality of narrativising history, it makes The Man from UNCLE’s simplicity is actually its complexity.