The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), Guy Ritchie’s big screen revival of the sixties secret agent series, is an origin story of sorts—think “When Napoleon met Illya”—with the two agents in a wary partnership. Otherwise it doesn’t bother much with backstories or motivations beyond setting the scene, which in this case is Europe in the cold war culture of the 1960s, from the ominous night behind the Iron Curtain to the sunny playground of the Mediterranean
Henry Cavill, who was a stiff as Superman, is quite charming in a cocky, calculating way as Napoleon Solo, a former thief pressed into service as America’s best dressed agent. His mission is to get Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic whose uncle happens to be a literal rocket scientist, over the wall to help stop some vague master criminal plot to unleash a nuclear bomb. Armie Hammer, dressed in funky proletariat chic so retro it’s cool, is stony Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin, who is after the same girl. So the rival nations decide to pair up their favorite cold warriors to stop the new international criminal threat, leading to a picture-postcard globe-hopping tour and a funky fashion show of sixties style. Oh yes, there’s also Hugh Grant getting in on the fun with his bemused dry wit. It won’t take fans of the TV show long to figure out his place in the scheme of things.
The plot is disposable at best —there’s an elegant mastermind (Elizabeth Debicki) who lives in the decadence of sleek sixties modernism with plans to destabilize the world for fun and profit—but Ritchie goes all out in reviving the Cold War sixties spy movie style and attitude, recalling Connery’s Bond movie with tongue firmly in cheek. The rival agents keep up their macho competitiveness and Vikander’s Gaby rolls her eyes at their juvenile antics, but in between we get elaborate set-pieces: foot chases and car races and physical stunts with real humans and physical objects rather than the manipulated pixels of CGI. Ritchie directs with an affection for sixties gimmickry both in terms of spy technology and filmmaking flourishes, splashing the film with multi-panel split screens (done digitally but evoking optical effects), zooms and whip pans, and the kind of splashy color that reminds us it’s all a fantasy.
It wasn’t particularly well-reviewed upon release and was not a summer hit—don’t expect a franchise to follow—but I found it refreshing and fun. Especially for a film where our two heroes are revealed to be borderline psychotics who have found their true calling in national service.
Blu-ray and DVD, with the supplements on the Blu-ray only: with five short featurettes and one collection of micro-featurettes, fun but a little slim for such a big production. The longest of the supplements—”Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool” on designing the film and “A Higher Class of Hero” on creating the action sequences—are under 10 minutes apiece and the rest under five minutes each: a piece on the creator of the motorcycles in the film and portraits of the two stars and the director. “U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy” collects four little pieces that run just over a minute apiece. Also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.
The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies – Extended Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s epically-expanded adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s adventure fantasy, once again offer a longer version of his theatrical film for the home video experience. Opening with the death of Smaug the dragon and concluding with a battle that takes up about half of the film’s running time, this is the darkest of the films. It turns on the transformation of dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) under the spell of the treasure and delivers The Battle of the Five Armies, an event only sketched out by Tolkien in the novel. Jackson turns the battle into the biggest set piece he’s ever made, showing off his flair for spectacle on a mammoth scale and his gift for creating clarity in sprawling action scenes with multiple stories and central characters to keep track of.
I’m still not thrilled with the ret-con job on the classic story but this chapter is the best of the three, more focused on a central narrative spine to build the spectacle upon and featuring a solid foundation of character and conflict. It also benefits from the extended edition, which adds 20 minutes to the running time, most of it extended conversations and character scenes.
As with his previous five Tolkien films, Jackson saved his grand menu of supplements for the “Extended Edition,” a deluxe three-disc set on Blu-ray and five-disc set for the Blu-ray 3D and DVD editions. There’s commentary by filmmaker Peter Jackson and co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens and “New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part 3” on disc one, and nearly ten hours of documentaries on the bonus discs. “The Gathering Storm: The Chronicles of the Hobbit Part 3” is a making-of documentary that runs just short of five hours and “Here at Journey’s End” (aka “The Appendices Part 12”) goes into detail on aspects of the production and pulls out to see the film in the context of the entire Tolkien story told in the six films. If you’ve seen any of the previous “Appendices” you know the kind of access and depth these productions have. A couple of bonus supplements fills out the final disc.