The Man From UNCLE
The Bond films have expended a decade of energy being bourne-again in the fires of self-seriousness and gravid portent, a new direction which both enlivened Spectre with a noirish chill and enervated the film into a mess of did-you-catch-that callbacks of Machiavellian omniscience. In doubling down on the predatory import, the film proclaimed the virtue of premeditation. Cinema, it said, should be puppeteered around by an unseen master-hand (much like the film’s main character), and any possibility for liberation or mutiny from a preordained conclusion should be foreclosed. The need to proclaim your film’s spick-and-span, all-buttoned-up, everything-in-its-place precision became stifling. The Bourne films were serious, but also nimble and lithe. Spectre, by and large, was cannibalized by its need to tie up every single thread of not only the film but the previous three films in the series, tangling every narrative idea in the self-aggrandizing intelligence of writers who can’t rescind the offer to inform you they had it all planned from the beginning.
In this 2010’s world commandeered by the deluge of films that marry big explosions to big themes and, above all, big egos, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE resurrects not only the pop artifice of the seductive, catlike ‘60s but the less pompous mindset of the summer blockbuster from 20 years beforehand, where sizzle rebelled against the fizzle of self-consciously literate blockbusters like Spectre, a film saved from a grave of its own digging only by the near-mastery of its formal craft. Instead, Ritchie’s film is a barn-burner, a fireworks show that exists in a blithe, blissful constant present-tense. Almost flaunting that it could not care less about the machinations of the narrative, Ritchie is proud to simply bask in the company of his three-person team: an obelisk (American operative Napoleon, played with a leaden all-American whimsy by Henry Cavill), a sphinx (Gaby, Alicia Vikander who serpentines around the dialogue like a cobra), and a weasel (Russian spy Illya, Armie Hammer mimicking the anonymous personality-free style of Cavill with an appended Russian lilt).
The three leads struggle to tread water, as any humanoid form does in a Guy Ritchie production, but the playful “who cares” texture to the film is part of the appeal. Certainly, the day-glo alacrity of the swinging ‘60s are a much more snugger fit for Guy Ritchie’s discombobulated, ricocheting style than his previous hand at pop-culture necromancy (the fitfully amusing, mostly trivial Sherlock Holmes pictures). The consequence-free, athletic jumble of the film’s everywhere-at-once style is crafty if not necessarily cunning, from John Mathieson’s hyper-saturated cinematography to Oliver Scholl’s production design, which jubilantly reminisces about a cardboard cut-out idea of the ‘60s rather than pretending to capture the real-deal.
It’s all very conditional, of course, swapping the dictates of solemnity for a bylaw of fresh-faced silliness that works only and exclusively in the moment. But Ritchie, whose only real trick as a director is his hyper-kinetic directorial tantrum, has at least discovered a property that doesn’t feel like it is being infringed on by a stylistic mismatch. There’s no congestion here, no airs, no blockbuster-as-monastery; almost definitionally, the sizzle surrounds the steak. Not exactly sublime, but the carousel of sequences and sabotages does find room for grace notes, like an absurdist, implicit excoriation of the show-and-tell action scene norm when a presumptively woolly boat chase with Hammer as the star is observed primarily, nearly exclusively even, in the background of a resting, reticent Cavill waiting on the shore in a car while munching down on some snack-food that shows up just in time for him to enjoy himself.
Here, Ritchie’s snappy style ascends to the level of reflexive popcorn-munching, as the action star becomes the action audience and the director upends his more-is-more style like a particularly wily saboteur by giving us so much less, which ends up being so much more. Moments like these triangulate the chic, laid-back subversiveness of the original show, which was in its day a plucky peace offering amidst Cold War strife with an American and a Russian operative working in heated unison. Released in 2015 amidst a miasma of bludgeoning, self-serious blockbusters, The Man From UNCLE is a respite from a decidedly different brand of forced sobriety.
Muppets Most Wanted
While it isn’t the acme of The Muppets particular, peculiar brand of for-the-family postmodernism and cheerfully performative elan, Muppets Most Wanted is, at least, a return to form for the characters in the most literal of senses: after the exuberant Muppet lecture of 2011’s The Muppets, this 2014 film is an actual Muppet film for the first time in over 20 years. While the 2011 feature masterminded by James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller, and star Jason Segall was more or less an exercise in aggrandizement, a film about the Muppets rather than a Muppet film, Most Wanted returns the felt friends to the delightfully presentational murk from whence they came.
The Muppets, essentially, was a film that concluded with a stageshow positioned within the narrative and thus contained by the film. Most Wanted, like any variety routine worth its salt, is a film that hints with only slight self-awareness that its entire runtime is a stageshow where characters can be whoever they imagine and any breakages of reality are accepted with a gloriously innocent gullibility. A cunning, cheeky verbal rib near the end teases out the endless malleability and the corollary off-hand dismissal of the Muppets’ way of life: Kermit, flustered and nearly enraged at his companions for not realizing that the thick, sonorous, Eastern-European-accented thief frog imitating him throughout most of the film, is greeted with little more than a whiff from his friends. The suggestion coursing underneath is a sort of “that wasn’t just you doing a bit?” insouciance and innocence unmolested by the reality principle that corroborates and encapsulates the exultant light of the Muppets full-brow: redressing fell normalcy with a shaggy-dog, relaxed indifference to patented surrealism. In the world of The Muppets, anybody can be anybody, and you just go with the flow.
The struggle with the 2011 film remains its semi-cloying insistence that the Muppets were social outcasts in need of new honorarium in the first place. To some extent the film did what it said on the tin, even if the tin was wistful in a way that the Muppets themselves would never accept. Rather than museum piece, they, and this 2014 film, are live-wire, present-tense three-ring circus. Much like Mel Brooks, the appeal of the all-the-yucks Borscht Belt comedian Fozzie Bear, the bracing prima donna Miss Piggie, the schizoid-streak whatsit The Great Gonzo, and the ring-leading Kermit the Frog centripetally rejecting the largely centrifugal nonsense around him are all that they resist the temptation of changing times. Rather than trivializing the characters, the flippancy with which they consider their own reality makes them both endlessly adaptable (they can survive and remodel themselves without any writer’s help) and always old-school (they don’t need to conform to your petty modernist need to update them). Essentially, rather than proving themselves, they’d rather just be themselves.
Fittingly then, Muppets Most Wanted is classic Muppet tomfoolery, an almost comically obvious update of The Great Muppet Caper with a structure (three simultaneous stories horizontally spreading outward rather than rushing to completion) that keys into the laid-back, always-rejiggering-themselves spirit of the original films. If The Muppets was a gallant throat-clearing of an exhibition match simply to prove that The Muppets were indeed Most Wanted after decades of relative hibernation, then the follow-up is more its own beast. By which I mean, it is more the same beast the Muppets have been for decades, which is for the best.
The pinnacle of that 2011 film was a blissfully ignorant utterance from Fozzie Bear after realizing that the near-success of their telethon (disrupted by the bad guy at the last moment, right on the cusp of the 10 million dollar goal) didn’t actually matter at all. Fozzie remarks “but we were so close!” and, in the heat of failure, their near-10 million is revealed to be much, much less after-all, to which Fozzie retorts “kinda makes me feel better, actually. We were nowhere close at all”. As breathlessly as that film undercuts the characters, it rescues them again with a deus ex machina that erects their theater after-all, an amusing realization that none of this really matters, but, because you and the characters are in on the joke, it congeals into something resembling “mattering” anyway. Most Wanted hurtles forth on that spirit, recollecting the gee-whiz arbitrariness and everyday-surrealism of the Muppet features at their best, more or less reminding that, even at their best, they were slight, trivial creations, but that was their mystique, their purpose, and their just-hanging-out-with-slightly-deranged-friends generosity to human kind.