2015 is the year of the spy. We’ve already seen Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, with the grandaddy of the genre still left to debut in November with Spectre. But bridging the spy gap between Tom Cruise’s latest attempt at suicide-via-practical-stunt and James Bond’s next bout of shaken-not-stirred shenanigans comes The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Brit auteur Guy Ritchie’s gleefully glossy adaptation of the cult classic 1960’s TV series.
Remembering nothing about the original series other than what the titular acronym stands for (Unified Network Command for Law Enforcement, by the by) I’m probably not the best judge of whether or not Ritchie’s stylized whizzbang take on the Cold War era espionage action-adventure maintains fidelity with the source material. I can attest to the fact though that while it has its fair share of foibles, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, polished bit of cinematic rumpus that makes for sufficient lightweight thrills, mainly due to its charismatic trio of leads bouncing off each other.
That bouncing off happens quite literally – usually involving fists, feet and whatever weapons are at hand – when it comes to silky smooth ex-thief turned CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and volatile KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Although initially on opposing teams, the two are forced to work together by their paymasters (though each with orders to take out their counterpart if needs be) to protect/handle testy German auto-mechanic Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) in order to find her missing scientist father who may just be building new high-tech atomic bombs against his will for her slimy uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) and his Nazi sympathizing industrialist patron, the glacial Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
While that brief synopsis sounds like boilerplate starter for these types of spy flicks, Richie and co-scribe Lionel Wigram’s script unfortunately doesn’t attempt to take things even a modicum further than that with a pretty rudimentary and ultimately un-engaging central plot that eventually fizzles under its own lack of ambition. As I recently pointed out in my Ant-Man review, not every movie needs to have its plot dialed to 11 to be successful, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is clearly lacking that stout kick in the narrative pants, in particular during its by-the-numbers third act endgame, which is usually when these things go for broke. Here, it’s just creatively broke.
Luckily the same cannot be said of the film’s fantastic opening set piece, a cloaked cat and dagger-carrying mouse chase through the cramped moonlit streets of Soviet-run East Berlin, as Solo tries to get Gabby over the Wall into West Berlin while being pursued by Kuryakin with monstrous determination. Jazzily scored and filmed with Ritchie’s trademark cinematographic kineticism, the sequence is not only filled with equal parts smarts, intrigue and just plain old popcorn-munching, fist pumping fun, but is also a comprehensively entertaining introduction to our leads and their polar opposite characters.
Cavill’s Solo is the consummate man-about-town, all quick hands and a silver tongue around the ladies. Played with an undeniably tangible physical charm and a frictionless accent that is highly exaggerated but fits perfectly with the roguish gentleman spy schtick, Cavill pulls it off well. In stylistic contrast, Hammer’s Kuryakin is built like a brick house, mostly boasts a similar stony demeanor and has about the same effect when he gets the drop on you. When he isn’t the very definition of cool Russian stoicism, he’s a font of barely contained rage – a shoot first then shoot again just to make sure kind of guy. It’s this lack of social graces that makes him the perfect match for Vikander’s vivacious and assured Gabby, as the palpable sexual tension and chemistry between the two often play out to funny effect.
It’s this balance/clash of personalities between the three stars that keeps The Man From U.N.C.L.E. moving through most of its admittedly slightly over-long running time. The plot twists may be transparent and the intrigue invisible – especially when it comes to Elizabeth Debicki’s bland vanilla villainness – but with Cavill, Hammer and Vikander there’s always a grin to be found if you look past these snags.
Ritchie also throws a few new additions into his trusty bag of director’s tricks seen employed so often in Snatch and the Sherlock Holmes movies, with split-screen framing, throwback musical cues and some neat little flashbacks (although the latter is merely used in the finale to falsely fabricate tension) combining to give the The Man From U.N.C.L.E. a different flavour – call it ” modern Cold War chic” – to its 2016 genre competitors. It may not boast the unbridled blood-soaked dementia of Kingsman, the ribald laugh-a-minute gags of Spy or the fully accomplished characterization and “Is he bleeding bonkers?!” action set pieces of Mission Impossible, but Ritchie’s film completely does its own thing.
It’s not always wholly successful in doing that one thing though, especially when it comes to a limp, oomph-lacking finale which pales in comparison to its belter of an opening, but when it’s on point The Man From U.N.C.L.E. delivers more than enough non-taxing fluffy fun, and sets up a sufficiently enjoyable dynamic, that I would not mind seeing more of it in the future.
Last Updated: August 20, 2015