Quick question: Have you seen The man from UNCLE?
We don’t mean the popular 1960s TV show where Robert Vaughn and David McCallum rode the era’s espionage-a-go-go wave and brought big Bond adventures to the small screen every week. We’re talking about the 2015 film that wanted to replicate the show’s vintage spy-vs.-spy mojo, pairing Henry “Dude Cocks His Arms Like Shotguns!” Cavill and another gentleman whose name currently escapes us as a next generation Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin respectively. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki added complementary moxie and glamour. 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 good. The director? Guy Ritchie.
But not the “Guy Ritchie” you’re thinking of, that is, 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 into a series of stories involving boys and guns and slang and irony before he eventually forged a parallel career as a studio gun for hire. He still made quirky crime films, though now they were more diminishing-returns than razzle-dazzle showcases. But Ritchie was also responsible for the steampunk Sherlock Holmes blockbusters with Robert Downey Jr. and the live action Aladdin. They are functional enough. His Man from uncle, but suggested that with the right material his one-to-thems could be far more satisfying than his one-to-me.
Operation Fortune: Cunning War — the title just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it? – would like to be UNCLE so bad. You can almost feel it yearning for that same ringing charm, the almost laid-back sense of old-school cool that involves fancy tuxedos, luxury yachts, mustache-twirling megalomaniacs and saving the world at the last possible second. It’s not afraid to throw in some Bourne-style action, especially since it has brutish British swashbuckler Jason Statham on board to punch his fists and throw elbows, or add some heist flavor to the jet-setting set pieces, either. We should apologize for making it sound cooler than it is. This isn’t the worst 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 co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies), or his cast any favors.
And should Statham and Ritchie – who have helped boost each other’s careers from the start and have worked together through the 2021s The wrath of man — think there’s a franchise to be had in the continuing adventures of Orson Fortune, international man of mystery, please know we’re on bended knee, begging you to reconsider. Fortune is an agent of a top British intelligence group that is somewhere between black ops and, say, charcoal gray ops. A highly classified and extremely dangerous, known only as “the handle”, has been stolen from Johannesburg. His boss (Cary Elwes) wants him to pick it up immediately. Fortune’s teammates are: JJ 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 MIA item and has his own group of mercenaries to back him up.
No one knows exactly what Handle is, just that someone will sell it to the highest billionaire bidder. This means that Fortune and friends must get in touch with Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), the world-renowned arms dealer and the mastermind behind 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 is pushing to be this DiCaprio 2.0’s manager, and that gets everyone an invite into the inner circle, which means they might find out…(yaaawwwnnnn) Sorry, we’re even bored just remembering all this right now.
It’s not that we’ve seen all of this before, although we certainly have. It looks more like it Operation Fortune: How How Etc. can’t seem to settle on a tempo or a tone to put it all together, or muster the sound and the fury and the fun and the action to bring it to life is on screen. Questionable decisions abound: Statham’s character is, we’re told, subject to a host of neuroses and phobias, none of which come to play. The only payoff is that it requires him to ask for a bunch of expensive bottles of wine, which… is this some kind of scam? Or was it a way to add “character” to his character? We know that the actor can handle a fight scene (see: the entire filmography of Jason Statham), but when he comes to fight with inseparable thugs, the sequences are over before they begin. 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 somewhere between ultra-rich sleazy and ultra-rich skeezy – except his whole shit feels way too much like a rehash of his role in Ritchie’s Gentlemenonly in the middle of better nature.
Unsurprisingly, the only person here who seems to have partially understood the task was Aubrey Plaza. Her apparent goal: Be Aubrey Plaza in a low-rate spy-thriller comedy. (The last hyphenated word should technically be in scare quotes.) Mission: possible – and accomplished. There’s the deadly wit, the strained smile trotted out for creeps and cretins, some swanning around in dresses and luxury clothes that feel like a dry run for her White Lotus stint, and an innate intelligence accompanied by an over-it-all vibe. When she’s handed a gun and Ritchie films her in a fishtailing muscle car, framed tight and firing shots, you can totally see why Aubrey Plaza: Action Hero could be a great addition to her resume. Give the woman her own spy series. Put her with Cavill and Vikander for one UNCLE successor. Make Plaza the new Bond, you cowards. Just don’t make her dirty by sticking her in disposable nonsense like this.
It might be easier to dismiss all this if it weren’t for the Ritchie factor – he’s not a hack, though his rock star auteur days are behind him, and as Gentlemen proved that the formula he perfected in the nineties has not aged well. There are little glimpses of someone who has real chops behind the camera, almost but not quite enough to make you think that with more time and focus he could have made something out of these spare parts. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all wrong Operation is designed to make his older, possibly lesser work look better. Come back, Snap. All is forgiven.