Somewhere between Kingsman: The Secret Service and James Bond’s latest adventure, Spectre, is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Who is the man from U.N.C.L.E.? If this question has you stumped before you have an opportunity to purchase a ticket, fear not. The question doesn’t matter in the slightest. Its title will only be familiar to an older audience – a generation that can remember when the U.S. and Russia were at odds in the Cold War, and when James Bond was (still is) the coolest cat in a penguin suit. Back in the 1960s the James Bond movies were such a hit that television wanted in on the action. We got series like Mission: Impossible (now a hit movie franchise with Tom Cruise), Patrick McGoohan’s one-two punch of Danger Man (aka Secret Agent Man) and The Prisoner, The Avengers (no, not those Avengers), and, of course, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie’s version of the popular ’60s series is cheeky and action-plenty, and keeps things as they should: at the height of the Cold War with the Berlin Wall still erect. Germany is the setting at the start as Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is on assignment to extricate Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who has been captured to build a weapon for the Nazis. But Solo isn’t the only one on a mission to get Ms. Teller. Solo’s opposition is the KGB’s top agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They are at odds from the start, but when the fists stop flying their handlers inform them both that they must work a mission together. This idea goes against each agent’s programming to never trust an American or Russian.
One of the great attributes about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that it doesn’t feel like a spy movie. The touchstones are there, but this is clearly a buddy comedy. The pairing of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer may look weird as neither man resembles the Solo and Kuryakin of the television series. Their interpretations is what I’d imagine if Roger Moore’s Bond tag-teamed with Daniel Craig’s Bond on a mission. Cavill’s Solo as a former soldier-turned-thief-turned-spy is the charmer, while Hammer’s Kuryakin is the muscle. The combination of brain and brawn adds to the chemistry and everything clicks when they are together on screen.
As impressive as this pairing turned out, it may be Alicia Vikander that steals your heart. Much like Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this Swedish actress, already drawing acclaim for Ex-Machina, is no third wheel to Cavill and Hammer. Plus, she keeps things fresh and fun with wit and charm, and a wardrobe that would make Audrey Hepburn jealous. Seriously, all three look like they walked out of a fashion magazine and into a spy movie.
The biggest detraction from the film is a strong villain. Though in a nice twist the villain is actually a villainess, which should bold well for Solo as the silver-tongued ladies’ man. Another issue is the action, and how it seems to devolve from light and campy to a serious tone when stakes are raised. Planned or not, the final action piece feels out of sync, but that may be on account of the rest of the action being low-key as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plays out like a caper with two buddies who don’t get along all that well.
For Guy Ritchie his latest marks a return to the writer’s room, something he hasn’t done since 2008’s RocknRolla. From the opening credits Ritchie’s stamp is all over the film. The humor to the use of split screens to creative use of subtitles – big and bold with gold coloring. The subtitles are a nice touch, but even better is the score by Daniel Pemberton. A composer who worked extensively in the television realm has ventured to the world of Hollywood motion pictures. Having fashioned the undertone for the banality that was The Counselor for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he infuses jazz with Italian. At times riffing on the score for Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, he populates the soundtrack with so many different musical accompaniments. Catalog tracks by Robert Flack, Solomon Burke, Louis Prima and Nina Simone also set the tone of what Ritchie wants to achieve (much like what Ritchie did with having songs from The Stranglers, James Brown and Maceo and the Macks in Snatch).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is fun and entertaining, but now that I think about it that may have to do with how much I enjoyed the music. During one scene it wasn’t the sly entry or hasty escape that had my attention, it was Pemberton’s cooly sliding from jazz flute and drum tacks to mariachi guitar strumming. “Breaking Out (The Cowboy Escapes)” is the kind of stuff that an Ennio Morricone fan would love.
While I have the feeling that Ritchie’s latest will get a bad rap by those who may be burned out by spy movies, it’s best to view it as a buddy comedy or a period action film. Unlike some failed franchise starters, more adventures with Solo, Kuryakin and Teller are welcomed.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, based on the TV series created by Sam Rolfe
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity)