14 August 2015

Road to a Blockbuster: The UNCLE from Compton

We've all got an U.N.C.L.E. from Compton every one of us. Today is the dawn of another Friday, the penultimate Friday in the Summer Onslaught of Cinematic Blockbusting Bliss, and so it's time again to chat about the critical, commercial, and cultural prospects of two big flicks hitting the theater. Like many weekends this summer, the two pics landing couldn't be more different from each other, which in its own way, is oddly complementary. The first is Guy Ritchie's lighthearted TV-adaptation/action film The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), the other is the  N.W.A. biopic film with an inherently prescient socio-political twist, Straight Outta Compton (2015). So let's break each of these down.

I'd like to do a big listing of every TV Adaptation ever, but the folks over at Film School Rejects already wrote a great article critiquing this phenomenon, so head over there and check that out first.

Welcome back.

I've said this before, but I don't really care where a film gets its inspiration. It can come from Hasbro games, or TV shows, or books or theme park rides, none of it really matters. What matters is if the film is any good or not - and to further push the equation, what matters is if it's successful in attempting to do what it wants to do. In this sense, Pixels (2015) is not successful. It is supposed to be a goofy action-comedy. It is neither funny nor inventive or exhilarating. Fantastic Four (2015)...well, I actually don't know what kind of movie Fantastic Four was supposed to be. Neither do the people who made it. So, sucks.
Let's do an experiment and switch the reels
 of the two movies coming out this week. No brother
in the audience will be able to tell these two apart.

This is an appropriate lens to look through when judging The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I was actually pretty impressed by the trailers and have been looking forward to this. Everything about it just seems so damn fun, which is getting to a be a popular buzzword these days for what most action movies are lacking in the post-Nolan Superhero grimdark world. 2015 is getting to be an alarming year for spy movies, particularly riffs on the genre like this and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. travels back to the setting of the TV show, the 60s, which is actually a reminder that we rarely get period Spy films. Perhaps that's just because no Bond film is really forgotten, and we get a heavier pop culture dose of that on the regular than other genres that have evolved with time.

Come to think of it, it's almost harder to think of a genre that has evolved with changing technology like the Spy Film. There really isn't another genre piece that morphs with changing time, because so many genre films are beholden to the time period expressed by their genre. Westerns are always...still in the Old West. Mostly. Likewise with Epic films. Maybe you can stretch Giant Monster movies, but really, are inter-dimensional rifts any further of a leap than Radioactive Lizards? This all just makes it pretty interesting what The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is doing.

That also doesn't really matter. Does The Man from U.N.C.L.E. succeed in doing what it wants to do? From the looks of it, I would scream yes. This isn't a film designed to create a shared universe, or douse itself in realism, or make a legit run for the Academy Awards. It has no concern with being a good movie, only a concern with being a palatable piece of action with a comic wit and timing on the part of a cast of totally underrated and undeserved actors.

Let's start with Superman. Henry Cavill hasn't totally had the chance to play around with a role like this, ever, and it's really refreshing to see. He's definitively coasting of a charm and cadence perfectly befitting a mild-mannered dad from the 60s. It's a delight. With him is Armie Hammer, who for some reason has never taken off to be the A-Lister he should have been after The Social Network (2010). It could have just been a string of completely awful roles, such as The Lone Ranger (2013), which I'm the only one who actually liked. He's just been attached to nothing great to showcase what he can really do on film. At one point he was attached to play Batman, though, so his pairing with Cavill is all kinds of awesome.

Moving on from our core duo we have current It Girl Alicia Vikander, who is somehow in six movies this year, while providing the narration for another. She's most well known right now as the robot from Ex Machina (2015). The other chick, who apparently steals the show even more than Vikander is Elizabeth Debicki, who is some crazy villain who is mostly known at this point as the one of the girls from The Great Gatsby (2013). That was a multi-Academy Award-winning movie, by the way, just to remind you. All of this seems to swirl in Guy Ritchie's head who has been less of an auteur as of late than when he got his start. Actually, it's hard to see much merit in anything he's done since Snatch (2000), even if his Sherlock Holmes duology was that same level of fun, if unmemorable.

My guess is that's what we're in for with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as well. Fun, adventurous, competently crafted, but maybe not something we really care about in four years. I say four years, because with that much time gone does anyone recall much from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)?

I know I've spoken at length about The Man from U.N.C.L.E for some reason, but this shit fascinates me. I'm kind of curious why this was called upon at all for a TV Adaptation. It doesn't totally have name recognition, and outside of a plot that was far more interesting when the Cold War was actually going on, it doesn't seem to have many references to the TV Show. And honestly, even if it did, I'm not sure anyone would notice. The point is, why even bother with this? Why not make a wholly original property? I suppose there's this weird sentiment that some kind of vague recognition, even if you just have to look up what the hell it's based on on Wikipedia offers a higher based audience than an entirely new IP. What an insane world.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum comes one of the more exciting movies of the summer, Straight Outta Compton. Everything about this looks just about perfect. It's the true story of one of the landmark bands in modern hip-hop, N.W.A., featuring Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella (and Arabian Prince, but nobody counts him). Those are actually the order of how famous all those group members currently are.
It was Gangsta Gangsta at the top of the list,
then I played my own shit it went something like this

N.W.A. is a landmark hip-hop group, which is made all the more surprising by the fact that they only actually ever put out two albums, and only one of which has all the songs that you listen to now. 1988's Straight Outta Compton album was an incredible jolt to the national conscious. Here it is! Or at least it seemed that way at the time. Nigh on thirty years later not much has changed, to the point where it's almost tough listening to "Fuck tha Police" and realizing that N.W.A. was rapping about the current hottest issue in this country all that time ago. It helps give some context to why we suddenly get riots in Baltimore and people going nuts. Authorities engaging in racial violence isn't a new thing.

That's what gives the film Straight Outta Compton a little bit more bite than the typical musician biopic. The story of N.W.A. certainly lends plenty to the typical tropes of the genre, but N.W.A. also leaned so heavily on their "Fuck White Society" mantra that their film, uncompromised, also represents that. It's therefore inherently also a political movie, and a pretty timely one at that.

Hip-hop hasn't really had its biopic. It's somewhat deserving then, that so formative a group as N.W.A. gets this distinction. I especially love how Ice Cube's son plays Ice Cube, which explains why I sat in the theater watching the first trailer absolutely amazed that they found someone who looked exactly like Ice Cube. I'm also curious about the treatment of Eazy-E, who is actually arguably the most talented member of N.W.A., who would have outpaced Dre and Cube if not for his untimely death from AIDS in 1995. Dre and Cube also had a pretty heady beef with him before said death, although I can't imagine that clouding their depiction of N.W.A.'s wildest member.

It's fitting that Straight Outta Compton is actually going against the Whitest Movie of the Summer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I haven't spoken too much about the cash prospects of either of these flicks. I think it's pretty good based on the fact that everyone likes N.W.A. and the marketing has been excellent. There's also virtually no competition, with Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) in its third week but not really dominating and Fantastic Four (2015) virtually becoming the most infamous bomb of the summer. I don't think U.N.C.L.E. has totally captured the hearts and minds of the people it needs to, although people might be in the mood for a fun, toned down blockbuster after the assault of crazy big budget shit this summer. Of course, TV Adaptations generally suck more the more time in between the show and film release, and period action films are never a guarantee. Biopics and racial films are totally in, though. I'd love for N.W.A. to maintain its grit through Straight Outta Compton, and even though it's great to highlight the story of a classic hip-hop ghetto to riches ride, they're always better as an underdog.

What do you think? Who are you giving your money to this weekend?

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