Right in the thick of the Cold War during the ’60s, American art thief turned spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is forced to team up with KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) as both America and the Soviet Union are setting aside their beef to go after a mysterious international crime organization, led by the stunning Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), that’s bent on starting World War III.
Their mission is to track down a vanished German scientist, the creator of the nuclear bomb Vinciguerra plans on using. To do so, Solo has brought on the scientist’s daughter Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whom he safely extracted out of East Germany. Together with Kuryakin, they race against time to track down Gabby’s father and prevent nuclear destruction from taking place.
Airing from 1964-68, NBC’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. actually came before CBS’s similarly themed Mission: Impossible, even though the latter series undoubtedly would go on to become the more popular franchise. Since 2015 has been saturated like crazy with spy films from Kingsman: The Secret Service (directed by Guy Ritchie’s former producer Matthew Vaughn), Spy, the fifth Mission: Impossible film to the fourth Daniel Craig led Bond flick, Spectre, opening this fall, it’s no surprise that we’re getting yet another one from Guy Ritchie based on the Ian Fleming inspired TV show.
While I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down in excitement for this film, I still was hoping for something good, even if for no other reason than for Guy Ritchie’s sake. Ritchie kicked his career off with a bang, delivering a one-two punch with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Then came the God awful Swept Away, the disappointingly incoherent Revolver (which would’ve been Ritchie’s worst film if not for his Madonna remake holding onto that prize at a Cy Young career wins record’s distance), briefly rebounding with the entertaining RocknRolla, but then following that up with two mediocre Sherlock Holmes films.
Thankfully, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has Ritchie bouncing back once again.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here. I mean, come on, if you’ve seen one spy film and its nuke-wielding baddie, you’ve seen ’em all, but Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram wisely treat the material with a self-awareness, letting humor play a big part of the film without turning it into parody. Material aside, Ritchie’s two best strengths as a filmmaker have always been the style he dresses up his films in and the great back-and-forth between his characters, and both elements are used to great effect here.
In another wise move, Ritchie chooses not to update the setting in some pointless need to be relevant and sticks with the Cold War ’60s as his backdrop, letting his sense of style bask in the fashions, interior designs, cars and overall look, feel and lifestyle of the time.
Who are we kidding? This film had me at the lovely Alicia Vikander dolling herself up in those retro sundresses.
Anyone that knows Ritchie’s work knows his penchant for dazzling camera moves and quick as a whip style of editing. His three best films may have relied heavily on it, but it worked since it fit the energetic frenzy of the stories; the Sherlock Holmes movies, unfortunately, made it feel tiring. His visual trademarks still show up, kicking things off with a terrifically choreographed car chase between Solo and Kuryakin, but refreshingly, he actually dials it back a bit more than what we’re used to seeing, letting the story play out straight so it can breathe a little. And with the bright, sleek style of the sets and costume design, it’s not like Ritchie had to fall back on the old tricks of the trade from his past films. The extravagant look of the period serves as style enough and fortunately Ritchie realizes that as well, though the moments his trademarks are put to use do add an extra bit of spark and pizzazz.
Where the film truly shines is in the great chemistry between Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander. As mentioned up above, when Ritchie’s at his best, the character banter is fantastic, and while it’s not at the level of his best works, there’s still a fun, light and breezy dynamic between his three leads. Cavill, whose presence fits the suave, debonair ’60s protagonist a la James Bond like a glove, proves that he can carry a film without a giant “S” emblazoned on his chest and a red cape strapped to his back. Hammer was the big worry for me following his stiff performance in The Lone Ranger (a middling film I neither hated nor liked), but works surprisingly well opposite Cavill and Vikander. I’ll admit the Russian accent took a moment or two to get used to, but Hammer wisely doesn’t overdo it with some Boris Badenov act. Vikander, who previously wowed me in April’s Ex Machina, is both brains and beauty in a role that transcends being just the female third of a throwaway triangle.
Outside of the three leads, Elizabeth Debicki is pure evil in a glowing gown as the temptress Victoria, and Hugh Grant, who last I saw him was still plagued by his ch-ch-charmingly b-b-bef-f-fudled s-s-stu-stutter, pops up for a few fine, albeit brief, scenes as the obligatory head of the agency.
I believe he’s also the only one in the film using their natural accent (an English Cavill plays an American, an American Hammer plays a Russian, a Swedish Vikander plays a German and a Welsh-Irish Jared Harris plays an American).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. features the same serviceable spy mission plot that we’ve gotten in pretty much every spy franchise that came before it, but co-writer/director Guy Ritchie livens up the standard narrative with a retro-chic style, trademark snappy editing, great character interplay from the three leads and enough of a knowing wink to mark a return to form for him. It remains to be seen if this film has the legs to carry a franchise like the ending clearly sets itself up for. Time – or more importantly, the box office – will tell, but count me in for the gang’s next assignment.
I give The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a B+ (★★★).