The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was actually a television show about an international ring of secret agents who protected the world from various threats. It swung between semi-seriousness and outright camp during its run from 1964 to 1968. Meanwhile, director Guy Ritchie has always been a director concerned first and foremost with the aesthetic experience of cinema. His most most successful films – Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Rocknrolla, and Sherlock Holmes, for instance – worked because they wedded first-rate performances to a fully-conceived approach to the movie as a visual and aural work. So he takes the theatrical reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as a chance to re-conjure the style of the 1960s spy thrillers, in the mold of a slightly zanier spin on early James Bond.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a former thief who is now the Central Intelligence Agency’s most successful operative. If Cavill was well-suited to his recent turn as Superman in Man of Steel, he was literally born to Solo. His performance is not terribly complex – the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with – but his affect is a sight to behold. Solo’s hair and suits are immaculately tailored, his jaw is square, his demeanor is supreme unflappability (and he can shift into confident bemusement at the arch of an eyebrow), he’s an irrepressible womanizer. He has the clipped, professional and slightly ironic speech of the proverbial 1950s company man. In short, he’s James Bond, but without the edge of tragic darkness. The whole thing is made all the funnier by the fact that, if you step back and think about the plot, Solo is actually a bit of a screw-up. Not that he’s aware of this, of course.
We first meet Solo during nighttime operation into Soviet-controlled East Berlin. The Cold War is in full swing, and Solo needs to find Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German car mechanic whose father was one of the top nuclear scientists for the Nazis. Then he defected to America, and recently went missing. The CIA’s suspects something is up, so Solo spirits Gaby back into West Berlin. He succeeds, but in the process their car is almost taken apart by the hulking Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a Soviet covert operative nicknamed the “Red Peril.”
The next day, Solo’s CIA handlers inform him that a clique of Nazi survivors, run by the icily predatory Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), and her foppish Italian husband Alexander (Luca Calvani), are attempting build a nuclear bomb. The only option is for America and Soviet Russia to work together to neutralize the threat, so Solo and Kuryakin are forced to team up. Since Teller’s missing father is the only lead, she’s recruited into the mission as well, to pose as Kuryakin’s wife.
Hammer is as perfectly-tuned to Kuryakin as Cavill is to Solo. He not only has the boyish good looks that communicate old-school male decency, he can hit the emotional notes as well. Kuryakin has anger management issues, but he’s basically a big puppy dog: staunchly principled, totally smitten by Teller, deeply committed to his country, and ferociously protective of his mother’s memory. And if Hammer’s Russian accent is layered on a bit thick at times, so much the better as far as this movie goes. Needless to say, he and Solo can’t stand one another.
As for Teller, Vikander plays her as an intelligent woman who immediately sizes up both he men she’s working with, and who’s making the most of her situation while nursing her own hidden agenda. The script does a fairly good job giving her as much to do as the two male leads, and providing a few character moments as well: there’s a hilarious sequence in which Teller, fed up with boredom of the mission, cranks up the pop music and drunkenly dances in her hotel room in huge sunglasses and PJs, while a moody Kuryakin stares at a chess board.
Eventually, British intelligence also gets involved, and Hugh Grant shows up as Alexander Waverly, a constantly amused MI6 higher-up.
The big weakness in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the ham-handed plot, which isn’t so much an organic spy story as it is a cheap mimicry of their beats. The script tries to pull off a few surprises and reversals, usually by showing the audience a scene that’s incomplete, then going back and filling in the gaps to complete the revelation at moments of maximal tension. But it feels more choppy and forced than anything, and its only Ritchie’s orchestration that saves the moments. It has all the usual spy-movie escapades and action sequences, but they clearly aren’t where Ritchie’s heart lies: what interests him are the over-the-top Russian accents, the tailored suits, the gaudy modernist parties, the secret Mediterranean bases, and the odd mid-Century American mannerisms that emerge when a culture that is still professional and traditionalist in theory begins to engage in social and sexual liberation in practice. This is where the film is the most successful.
Another big boost comes via the score from Daniel Pemberton. It manages to both muscular, modern, and a throwback to 60s B-movie music all at once. Pemberton throws in secret agent guitar stylings, bongo drums, a dulcimer, percussive flute beats, and Sergio-Leon-inspired wordless vocal cries.
I actually didn’t know the film was based on a television show when I saw it. I figured things out halfway through, and the slow way the movie reveals where its ultimately going is fun. We’ve seen more than enough origin stories in American cinema as of late. But while The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t plowing any new territory in that regard, it does bring a fair amount of grace and a climactic act of decency and camaraderie to the proceedings. It’s not a great film, but the performances are all fun, and Guy Ritchie’s direction is one of the most enjoyable and luxurious deployments of pure style I’ve seen in a long time.
Watching the movie once was enough. But I hope they make another.