Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: 3 stars
At the height of the Cold War, Central Intelligence Agency agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) arrives in East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) past the Berlin Wall. However, his mission gets complicated when KGB Agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) stops him on the way resulting in a public spectacle. This fiasco, however, leads the CIA and KGB to realise that both have the shared goal of hunting down Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of an organisation of former Fascists and Nazis and their plans to unleash a nuclear bomb on the world. Ilya and Solo are tasked by their superiors to work together to save the world, but to do so they must sort out their many differences in personalities and styles.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a wonderful retro spy adventure story. It’s based on a popular British TV show from the ’60s that took a more nuanced and light-hearted approach to the world of espionage. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Guy Ritchie’s film taps heavily into the fashions of the ’60s, so we have Alicia Vikander dressed like Audrey Hepburn and the male stars likewise strut in ’60s suits and casual wear. We have a lot of fetish for period detail such as old cars, ’60s songs and Italian fashion, which became iconic images of that era.
Ritchie’s borrowings go further than surface detail; he also manages to get the jet-set style of films like Charade, From Russia with Love, North by Northwest and The Quiller Memorandum. The film is highly colourful, its credits are laced in the fonts and patterns of ’60s movie credits. It extends also to the style of humour which is much dryer and subdued, where even the crude jokes have an element of sophisticated elegance as opposed to the likes of Austin Powers.
Of course, the film does have over-the-top action and frenetic cutting similar to all Guy Ritchie movies, and as much as the language is cleaned up from films like Snatch, it is still confusing to follow certain sequences which are cut too fast. This is especially the case since Ritchie engages in certain manipulative gimmicks where sequences play out in a seemingly linear fashion only to be followed up by a small sequence where we see the missing pieces in the puzzle.
This is used in two key scenes and to mixed effect. So far, only Steven Soderbergh (at one point considered a potential director for this film) has pulled this sleight of hand well in his Ocean’s movie franchise. That said, Ritchie’s use of popular music serves him well, and one surprising sequence of a boat chase has a weird sense of poetry to it — Henry Cavill escaping a boat chase and then landing in a truck and shuffling the radio until he arrives at the right music to play as he watches his Russian partner get chased by bad guys.
The performances are what carry the film. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) plays a darker and roguish character as opposed to Clark Kent. A former criminal who is forced to serve the CIA, he finds much in common with his opposite, the idealistic Ilya Kuryakin. Armie Hammer (The Social Network, J. Edgar), an unusually tall actor, is brilliantly cast. His performance as Ilya steals the film, being simultaneously romantic and touching, dark and moody and absolutely hilarious in his deadpan detachment and constant one-upmanship. The original Ilya Kuryakin in the TV show was the rare good Communist in a first world spy movie and a key reason for the show’s popularity. Hammer likewise continues the scene stealing tradition.
Jared Harris (Moriarty in Ritchie’s Sherlock movies) is wasted in his brief role while Hugh Grant appears in an excellent small role. A general weakness of the film is the poorly written female characters. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which generally features women as femme fatale/temptresses like Elizabeth Debicki’s villainess or in the case of Alicia Vikander’s Gaby, described by herself as a “mother figure” to the two heroes who constantly fight each other. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is enjoyable fun, filled with likeable and charismatic lead roles and a good mix of humour, action and suspense. It’s a genre film that embraces its limits to the extent that it becomes its strength.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society