Home » New films: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. vs. Straight Outta Compton
Arts Film Review

New films: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. vs. Straight Outta Compton

straight outta compton

A surprising showdown at the movies

This was the week I expected to be doing nothing but gushing about “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a film I’ve been anticipating for months. Not that I didn’t have some concerns along the way, especially after other hit TV shows became movies and changed genre in the process (for example, “Starsky and Hutch,” “21 Jump Street”). But the preview hit the right notes and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival ever since. And it’s not that it disappointed me – it didn’t, I really enjoyed it. But I was surprised a day later by how much I enjoyed “Straight Outta Compton.” This could be an example of relative satisfaction as a function of expectation and performance, but it feels like more than that.

The original “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” television show was something I looked forward to as a kid, although at that time I didn’t give much thought to its content or style, it was simply entertaining. It’s easy now to compare any spy films to the Bond book/film franchise, but “…U.N.C.L.E.” first appeared on TV when those films were just getting off the ground. In this case, it’s also somewhat justified as Ian Fleming actually helped develop the new concept and characters and there were legal problems based on his involvement, with the Bond film producers concerned about overlaps.

“…U.N.C.L.E.” was also interesting as a multi-national organization, rather than something more nationalistic and, in the process, more jingoistic. A show pairing American and Russian agents was quite daring in the Cold War 60’s, and still was in the 70’s when I was catching up with it. In that context, it’s worth noting immediately that the film maintains that timeframe and context. This isn’t a film that takes a title and then runs with it in a current scenario, this is still the Cold War and these are agents who begin the film as rivals and counterparts, quite literally on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are solid picks to recreate the roles originated by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, and Hugh Grant feels like an inspired choice for Alexander Waverly. The odd man out here is Jared Harris, chewing through a fake American accent as a CIA superior to Cavill’s Napoleon Solo. And Alicia Vikander continues her remarkable and diverse year (“Ex Machina,” “Testament of Youth”).

For the most part, the film just feels right. It’s snappy and fresh in its delivery and feels like a good match to either the show or to my distant memories of it. There’s a part towards the end when it seems to forget that style a little and feels like it borrowed a chase sequence from something blunter, like the “Fast and Furious” franchise. But it works aside from that. Probably its biggest obstacle is the proximity of its release date to that of the latest juggernaut in the similar TV to film adaptation of the “Mission Impossible” series. “…U.N.C.L.E.” has a lot of ground to make up in re-establishing brand awareness as yet another property whose original fans are aging out of the blockbuster movie demographic. I hope we see more of it and I appreciate the faithfulness of the transition when there was probably a great temptation to update it.

By comparison, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting “Straight Outta Compton” at all. I’m somewhat aware of the background to the story, about the rise of rap music and the beginning of the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, amongst others, but it’s not a music genre I’ve ever really appreciated and I hadn’t followed the early events depicted in the film. To some extent, I felt like I often feel walking into a superhero movie, based on comic books I’m aware of but have never actually read.

However, the film was a revelation. It starts as a collective underdog story, filled with racism and oppression that’s sadly still all too timely 30 years later, and progresses to a dynastic drama that transcends content. While it may sound odd to some, “Straight Outta Compton” felt almost Shakespearean or reminiscent of backstabbing period dramas like “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” or even “Dallas.” On top of that, songs and lyrics that I remembered but never paid much attention to, took on a new life in the context of the story, with the songs themselves being so observational and reflective of the lyricist’s experience.

The cast here is also strong and enough of an ensemble to make shouting out individuals seem somewhat unreasonable, although it’s always intriguing to see a child play their own parent as O’Shea Jackson Jr. does effectively here, playing his father Ice Cube. As with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E., ” there’s one odd low point from a normally virtually unassailable actor, as Paul Giamatti first appears as producer Jerry Heller and seems a little too close for comfort to his character in the other recent music biopic “love & mercy,” which certainly doesn’t endear you to the character.

I’m often bothered in films by questions of historical accuracy and I may be inconsistent with this film simply because I had such limited knowledge and investment in the events. Some very brief research demonstrates that there’s probably some significant simplification of events and relationships, although that’s to be expected in a film that covers this many people and years. It also seems reasonable to assume that others might have their own versions of these events, but as one set of recollections, however biased they may or may not be, “Straight Outta Compton” results in some compelling storytelling that didn’t feel anything like as long as its 147 minutes.

So, overall, I had a great week at the movies. I genuinely enjoyed both of these films but I was surprised far more by “…Compton” than by “…U.N.C.L.E.” and in a manner that I think goes beyond the clearly different personal expectations and connectedness that I had for each of the films.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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