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‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ could learn a thing or two from ‘Rogue Nation’s’ nostalgic score

‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ could learn a thing or two from ‘Rogue Nation’s’ nostalgic score

Rogue Nation Man from U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack scores

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Joe Kraemer
Paramount Pictures

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Daniel Pemberton
WaterTower Music

In his score for Kingsman: The Secret Service, Henry Jackman wants you to know he’s a James Bond fan. He just doesn’t want to tell you. Monte Norman’s iconic guitar riff pops in and out of his score, and brassy John Barry flourishes pepper the background music of Matthew Vaughn’s latest pulpy indulgence. Vaughn and comic book brute Mark Millar’s spy thriller struck a chord with audiences in February with gaudy, gory violence and in-jokes to the Ian Fleming novels it draws from. Strangely though, Jackman’s half-baked music never follows suit, tiptoeing around its homages rather than fully committing to its Roger Moore era obsessions.

The music of Kingsman wants its both ways, retro while still feeling fresh enough for modern box office, a shared paradox with The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s loose adaptation of the decades-old television show. U.N.C.L.E. is filled to the brim with tailored suits, silencer pistols, and vaguely-defined plots for world domination, sleek and single-minded in its aesthetic pursuits. Daniel Pemberton’s score however, is anything but slim. His ominverous approach to instrumentation swallows up everything from electric guitar and drum kits to cimbalom and bladder fiddle. The peak tension cues “Laced Drinks” and “Circular Story” sound like groovier takes on Desplat’s Grand Budapest eclecticism, the latter cue beginning with arpeggio riffs in supreme Jimmy Page fashion. Enchanting textures in tracks like “The Unfinished Kiss” call back to Alicia Vikander’s polka dot-sporting German refugee/sexual foil, a stupefyingly charming presence when compared to her bland counterparts in Henry Cavill’s CIA Agent and Armie Hammer’s bear of a KGB man. At its best, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is inviting when performances demand it and propulsive and fun when Ritchie can’t keep the adrenaline pumping.

Functionally, Pemberton hits the spot; with all those instruments, how couldn’t he? Where he runs into issues is in cramming as much as possible into his homages. “We Have Location” is a mellow twist on one of Jerry Goldsmith’s four separate TV themes, and the score’s addition of bass flute is a cool salute to Lalo Schifrin, but it wears against Pemberton’s nouveau arrangements. Machine gun rhythms in “Take You Down,” which introduces a dune buggy chase, bogs down its ode to Ennio Morricone and becomes a bad Kasabian song. In these moments away from his broad taste making, Pemberton tries for period and ends up with affectation, curious compositions whose retrograde trappings mutate into sloppy remixes. It’s part and parcel of U.N.C.L.E. walking the walk and never talking the talk.

Perhaps there’s a particular fondness for nostalgia in 2015’s cultural zeitgeist. Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation shares a particular fondness for looking backward, too, often with a wink. Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) secret message is delivered via vinyl, a tip of the hat to composer Joe Kraemer and his adherence to writing strictly for instruments that would have been around during the show’s seven season run. Later, Alec Baldwin’s CIA director zings Hunt and the IMF as a “throwback” to a bygone era. And during a fight sequence at the Vienna Opera House, the background noise of Turandot adds an ironic grandiosity to a fully expected fist fight. Any discernible differences between Kraemer’s work and that of Michael Giacchino, who scored the previous two entries, is miniscule. Maybe Kraemer’s opening titles are little more distressed this time around.

The real standout in Rogue Nation is one Giacchino would likely appreciate, because Kraemer’s allusions to Mission: Impossible‘s history turns him into a smart ass. In the same way a Puccini opera underlines the “been there, done that” franchise fatigue, Kraemer punctuates expectations with nods to Schifrin’s M:I theme, when samples pop up in “Escape to Danger.” “A Flight at the Opera” borrows a 5/4 time signature and “The Syndicate” explodes into samba stylings out of the title theme’s iconic trill. The M:I titles get dolled up in “Audience with the Prime Minister,” which accompanies Baldwin and Jeremy Renner’s single-breasted formality. Kraemer drops it in and out of “Morocco Pursuit,” whooshing past at what feels like the breakneck speed of its motorbike chase. Ethan’s pursuit of double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) isn’t Rogue Nation’s strongest set piece, but it is its most tongue-in-cheek, and Kraemer adorns its dramatic swerves and close calls with a smirk.

Ghost Protocol ended the “bigger is better” conversation in a franchise that’s continually trying to up its own ante. In Rogue Nation, McQuarrie and Kraemer shake the series’s foundations and then set to work with in-jokes and an inversion of the sleek throwback elements U.N.C.L.E. so desperately clamors for. It may have taken 19 years, but Mission: Impossible has grown up. Unlike Pemberton’s retro trappings, which get bogged down by cluttered ambition, or even Henry Jackman’s timid homages, Rogue Nation‘s music balances the past with the present.