Friday, August 14, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.The feature knockoff of I Spy back in 2002 would have been a lousy movie in any case, but it was the more galling if you had any affection for the original series. The same went for the 1999 version of Wild Wild West, and the 2008 version of Get Smart.

I was at an advantage when it came to the new movie version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., directed by Guy Ritchie, and based on the hit espionage series which ran on NBC from 1964 to 1968. Unlike the aforementioned three shows, I hardly ever watched U.N.C.L.E. as a kid, and therefore had no particular nostalgic investment in it.

The show, you may recall, concerned an international agency (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) in which spies from either side of the Cold War set aside their differences and cooperated to thwart the evil designs of T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Two such agents were American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Soviet Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), supervised by dry Brit Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll).

I watched the old show a little in recent weeks in anticipation of the film. It’s on the slovenly and feeble side, but the acting, both of the regulars and the guest stars, was droll and good-natured, and so was some of the writing. If I had been a bigger fan, maybe I would be outraged by Ritchie’s film version. It’s a mixed bag, with style and panache in the directing and designs and acting thrown together with tiresome, even tasteless ideas. But for me, the style and panache won out.

It’s an origin story, about how Napoleon and Illya meet as enemies and are forced to work together to retrieve an atom bomb from some surviving Nazis, and for about the first half of the movie the two of them brawl and bicker. This is tedious, but not as tedious as the chase of all-terrain vehicles in the rain that climaxes the film. And the slightly campy tone taken toward a Nazi torturer feels a little queasy, too.

But Ritchie’s mastery of scrambling and de-scrambling strands of action through omniscient camera moves, split screens, chronology juggling and wild crosscutting give the film a lot of headlong momentum to get us past these missteps. So does a heavy dose of mid-‘60s period flavor from the cars and the fashions on the several beauties in the cast to the punchy, sexy soundtrack.

Probably the biggest upside, though, is the performance of Henry Cavill as Napoleon. Cavill seemed like a cipher to me as Superman, but here he has a grand time imitating the ironically stentorian cadences of Robert Vaughn, and he more or less carries the film.

Armie Hammer manages Illya’s accent well, but the anger issues with which the character is stuck here cheat him out of the chance to show his suave side. Hugh Grant comes into the story late as Waverly, and his line readings are a breath of fresh air, though it’s distressing to think that Grant is now old enough to play a Leo G. Carroll part.

Anachronism watch: The phrases “low tech” and “skill set” are spoken in this movie. Likely, in the mid-‘60s?

Straight Outta ComptonAs to the historical accuracy of this chronicle of N.W.A., I’m certainly not hip hop historian enough to have an opinion. I was a fan of several of the guys from the seminal late-‘80s “gangsta rap” ensemble, but mostly on the basis of their movie work. I liked the music a lot, but didn’t think it provided the healthiest set of life influences, and I must say that little in this movie suggests to me that I was wrong about that.

Besides, to a white kid from rural Pennsylvania, it would have somehow felt oddly presumptuous buying those albums, like something I couldn’t pull off. I would have felt like a poseur (if all the white boys had felt that way back then, those guys would have gotten much less wealthy).

What I can say is that the movie, directed by F. Gary Gray, is juicy entertainment, full of terrific acting and music and laughs and heart. It follows the familiar show-biz-legend movie template—an insanely meteoric rise from rough origins, exhilarating success, too much too soon, conflicts and feuds and tragedy and reconciliation. It plays out against the backdrop of L.A. in the turbulent '80s/‘90s, with its constant threat of violence and terror, both from gangs and from the goonish occupying force of the CRASH-era LAPD.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were among the producers of Straight Outta Compton, and Gray directed the former in Friday and the latter in Set It Off, so it may not be surprising that these two—played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ice Cube’s real-life son, or possibly clone) and Corey Hawkins, are presented as the best artists. But the emotional center of the film is a little-known actor named Jason Mitchell as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, the weed-dealing hustler who launched Ruthless Records, and, even though he was strained and unmusical, managed to make his mark as a performer as well. Mitchell has a touchingly pensive quality as Eazy-E; it’s not hard to believe it when he bonds with Ruthless manager Jerry Heller (the target of Ice Cube’s notorious anti-Semitic swipe in “No Vaseline”), played here by Paul Giamatti. They’re both fretters.

Nobody in the movie comes across as perfect, nor does anybody—except, maybe, for the baleful Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor)—come across like a villain. Everybody seems, rather, like they’re in over their heads, blindsided by the intensity and breadth of the reaction to their music and the fame and fortune it brought. The title, after all, is Straight Outta Compton, not Gradually Outta Compton.

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