With “Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation“, “Kingsman: The Secret Service“, and the upcoming James Bond film “Spectre”, 2015 is already lousy with spy movies. Does anybody really need another one? Much less another remake of a 1960s TV series that is remembered fondly because of its offbeat tone? Turns out the answer is a resounding “yes”, we definitely need one more if it’s the super-cool “The Man from U.N.C.L.E“, a suave piece of summer fun full of sweet gadgets, international espionage, and the real emergence of Henry Cavill as a bonafide leading man.
Sure, Cavill has already earned big bucks by flying around as Superman but that’s a role which requires a certain level of restraint. Superman doesn’t do charming. Cavill, it turns out, is incredibly magnetic when given the opportunity, and director Guy Ritchie affords him plenty of that in the role of American spy, Napoleon Solo. A small-time crook and con artist forced into government service at the height of the Cold War with Russian, Solo’s greatest weapon is a smile that could melt the cold heart of any Russkie. His task is to safely extract Gaby Teller (the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander), the daughter of an East German nuclear scientist, out of East Berlin. The fear is that her father is helping to build a nuke for evil-doing socialites Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Also afraid of the world going boom are the Russians, who send stone-faced operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to join in on the mission to stop them.
Of course both governments have their own agendas which include killing the other if they get in the way. Those parameters are put to the test immediately in the film’s most thrilling action sequence in which the vaguely superhuman Kuryakin pursues on foot a fleeing Gaby and Solo as they speed off. It’s the kind of bombastic set piece that Ritchie thrives at, but this amounts to really the only scene where he gets to show that off. For the most part he’s unexpectedly restrained, focusing his energy on comic mood rather than explosions, or better yet, comedy in the midst of extreme violence. It’s something he’s always relished in, look at his Sherlock Holmes movies for example, and he remains committed to making this a purely fun spy movie.
Part of keeping the tone light in the face of nuclear devastation involves some friendly macho sparring between Solo and Kuryakin, with each guy looking to prove, in any way possible, that he’s the superior man. Sometimes that involves a brief but destructive tussle, which Solo will come away from grinning while Kuryakin maintains his grim-faced stare. Surprisingly, they aren’t really at odds over who will win Gaby’s heart. There’s no real love triangle here, although she and Kuryakin share a flirtation that threatens to pierce his armor. By necessity Hammer’s role is less dimensional than the others, while Vikander creates a wonderfully colorful character out of Gaby. She proves to be as mentally and physically tough as her male counterparts, yet still is spirited enough to literally dance circles around them.
Problems arise when Ritchie needs to flip the switch and take the finale into serious mode. As the stakes are raised, people start dying, and the world is on the brink of nuclear disaster, it’s hard to treat it with the necessary gravity. In one critical scene, Solo literally takes a sandwich break while Kuryakin is running for his life. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” often times looks like an ad for a fashion magazine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s ultimately a silly and weightless film, too, but you’ll be too distracted by how beautiful everyone is to care.