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​Reviews: "Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "Straight Outta Compton"

The "Sunday Morning" critic offers his take on the new espionage thriller and the origin story of the hip-hop group N.W.A.
David Edelstein reviews "U.N.C.L.E.," "Straight Outta Compton" 03:47

Two new films turn a moviegoer cliche on its head, according to our critic David Edelstein:

Here's a tip: Never trust anyone who says, "Well, I haven't seen that movie, but I know I'm going to ..." because you don't know what you don't know.

Two cases in point:

I knew I would hate "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." because it's a naked attempt to create another studio "franchise" (my least favorite word these days) from a decent but not terribly timely old TV show, starring two barely distinguishable hunks-of-the-moment directed by the guy behind those lousy Sherlock-Holmes-as-action-hero movies with Robert Downey, Jr.

And it's delightful!

It's the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have nukes aimed at each other, and two incredibly good-looking, arrogant secret agents from each country are stuck working together against an even more intimidating enemy.

Alicia Vikander in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." Warner Brothers

Henry Cavill and his cleft chin play the former thief-turned-CIA hot dog Napoleon Solo in crisp blue suits; Armie Hammer and his wide neck play the lionhearted (if borderline psychotic) KGB beast, Ilya Kuryakin.

The constant testosterone-hosing one-upmanship would be tiresome if it weren't for wild-card Alicia Vikander, the Swedish-born actress with the long ballerina's physique and a touch of Audrey Hepburn impudence.

"The Man From U.N.C.L.E." isn't thrilling, grab-you-by-the-throat-and-throttle-you-into-submission filmmaking. It's something more rare these days. It's witty and elegant -- wittily elegant -- so you laugh out loud at each deftly-executed bit of espionage.

In other films, director Guy Ritchie is over-fond of high-tech whoosh. This time, he shows a love of doing things just so that's retro in the best way.

The other film you might prejudge -- for better or worse -- is "Straight Outta Compton," which recounts the rise of gangsta-rap pioneers N.W.A., led by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E. Whatever I might think of gangsta rap (and, believe me, the movie doesn't put too high a value on glib, prissy white guys' thoughts on gangsta rap), the meaning, the urgency, the necessity of even the most obscene, vainglorious and hateful rhymes emerges with thrilling clarity.

Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre in "Straight Outta Compton." Universal Pictures

The movie, directed by F. Gary Gray, depicts a world that's all confrontation -- from cops, but also from other young black men, their pride always on the line in dances of dominance that could turn deadly.

"Straight Outta Compton" is a showbiz and a rags-to-riches capitalist saga. There's betrayal, stupidity, excess.

It was executive produced by Dre, Cube, and Easy E's widow, so it's the winners' version of history. But it reminds you why we need movies: not to have our prejudices ratified, but to put us in other peoples' shoes and discover -- whoa, they fit!

Edelstein also endorses:

More from David Edelstein:

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