Quick question: Have you seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
We don’t mean the popular TV show of the 1960s, in which Robert Vaughn and David McCallum surfed the era’s espionage-a-go-go wave and brought big Bond-style adventure to the little screen every week. We’re talking about the 2015 movie that wanted to replicate the series’ vintage spy-vs.-spy mojo, pairing Henry “Dude Cocks His Arms Like Shotguns!” Cavill and another gent whose name currently escapes us as a next-gen Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki added complementary moxie and glamor. For something based on a boomer-nostalgia title and designed by nature to be a cash-in, this late-summer trifle was breezy, fun, and surprisingly great. The director? Guy Ritchie.
But not the “Guy Ritchie” you’re thinking of, i.e. the filmmaker who gave us Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and burst onto the Nineties indie-import scene as a sort of cockney alt-Tarantino. That version of Ritchie turned out a number of stories involving lads and guns and slang and irony, before he eventually fashioned a parallel career as a studio gun for hire. He still made quirky crime films, though they were now more diminishing-returns deals than razzle-dazzle showcases. But Ritchie was also responsible for those steampunk-ish Sherlock Holmes blockbusters starring Robert Downey Jr. and the live-action Aladdin. They’re functional enough. His Man From U.N.C.L.E., however, suggested that with the right material, his one-for-them’s could be way more satisfying than his one-for-me’s.
Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre — the title just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it? — wants to be U.N.C.L.E. so badly. You can practically feel it yearning for that same ring-a-ding charm, the almost casual sense of old-school cool involving dapper tuxedos, luxury yachts, mustache-twirling megalomaniacs, and saving the world at the last possible second. It’s not afraid to throw in a little Bourne-style action, especially since it’s got brutish Brit brawler Jason Statham on board to ball up his fists and throw elbows, or add in some heist-flick flavoring to goose the jet-setting set pieces, either. We should apologize, because we’re making it sound cooler than it is. This isn’t the worst imitation Bond knock-off you’ll ever see; there are far worse offenders in that category. But Operation Fortune doesn’t do Ritchie, his collaborators (he cowrote the script with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies), or his cast any favors whatsoever.
And should Statham and Ritchie — who’ve helped boost each other’s careers from the very beginning, and have kept working together up through 2021’s Wrath of Man — believe there’s a franchise to be had in the continuing adventures of Orson Fortune, international man of mystery, please know we’re on bent knees, begging you to reconsider. Fortune is an agent for a top-notch British intelligence group that’s somewhere between black-ops and, say, charcoal-gray ops. A highly classified and extremely dangerous whatsit known only as “the Handle” has been stolen from Johannesburg. His boss (Cary Elwes) wants him to retrieve it straight away. Fortune’s teammates are: J.J. Davis (grime music legend Bugzy Malone), a utility player who specializes in “coms, guns, driving, diving, rapping, slapping, you name it”; and Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza), an American computer whiz brought in to replace a former cohort (Peter Ferdinando) gone rogue. Who, it should be mentioned, is also after the M.I.A. item and has his own band of mercenaries to back him up.
No one knows exactly what the Handle is, just that someone is going to sell it to the highest billionaire bidder. That means Fortune and friends need get in good with Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), world-renowned arms dealer and the gent brokering this black-market deal. The key to entering his world, you ask? Meet Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), movie star extraordinaire. Simmonds is a superfan, so Statham strong-arms his way into becoming this DiCaprio 2.0’s manager, and that gets everybody an invite into the inner circle, which means they can possibly find out…[yaaawwwnnnn] Sorry, we’re even getting bored just remembering all of this right now.
It isn’t that we’ve seen all of this before, though we definitely have. It’s more like Operation Fortune: Yadda Yadda Etc. can’t seem to settle on a pace or a tone to string it all together, or marshal the sound and the fury and the funny and the action to enliven what is onscreen. Questionable decisions abound: Statham’s character is, we’re told, subject to a bunch of neuroses and phobias, none of which come in to play. The only payoff is that it requires him to ask for a lot of expensive bottles of wine, which… is this some kind of con? Or was it a way to add “character” to his character? We know the actor can nail a fight scene (see: the entire filmography of Jason Statham), yet when he does get to tussle with indistinguishable thugs, the sequences are over before they’ve begun. Maybe Hartnett was worried about offending real-life A-listers, but he doesn’t seem to be having fun with what’s essentially a license to throw tons of shade. Grant is having a ball playing the middle ground between ultra-rich sleazy and ultra-rich skeezy — except his whole shtick feels way too much like a reprise of his role in Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, only amid better scenery.
Not surprisingly, the only person here who seems to have partially understood the assignment was Aubrey Plaza. Her apparent goal: Be Aubrey Plaza in a cut-rate spy thriller-comedy. (That last hyphenated word should technically be in scare quotes.) Mission: possible — and accomplished. There’s the deadpan wit, the strained smile trotted out for creeps and cretins, some swanning around in gowns and luxury-wear that feels like a dry run for her White Lotus stint, and an innate intelligence accompanied by an over-it-all vibe. When she’s given a gun and Ritchie films her in a fishtailing muscle car, framed tight and firing off rounds, you can totally see why Aubrey Plaza: Action Hero might be a nice addition to her resume. Give the woman her own spy series. Pair her with Cavill and Vikander for an U.N.C.L.E. sequel. Make Plaza the new Bond, you cowards. Just quit doing her dirty by sticking her in disposable nonsense like this.
It might be easier to dismiss all of this if it wasn’t for the Ritchie factor — he’s not a hack, even if his rock-star auteur days are behind him and, as The Gentlemen proved, that formula he perfected in the Nineties has not aged well. There are tiny glimpses of someone who has genuine chops behind the camera, almost but not quite enough to make you think that, given more time and focus, he could have made something out of these spare parts. Or maybe, just maybe, this whole botched Operation is designed to make his older, possibly lesser work look better. Come back, Snatch. All is forgiven.
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