How to describe “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to someone who wasn’t alive during the TV show’s mid-sixties heyday? How about James Bond with jokes? Or a less funny “Get Smart”? Perhaps as a Bizarro World CIA show that once saw the heroes prevent a stink bomb attack on Hollywood?
It was all those things and had two of the coolest character names in television history, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.
The new Guy Ritchie film, his first in four years, aims to grab the freewheeling spirit of the original show without dropping a stink bomb in theatres.
Set in 1963, it’s the origin story of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, the super secret spy organization who recruit CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They’re an odd couple, enemies from the opposite sides of the justice system. Solo is suave and unflappable, Kuryakin is a hothead with a sensitive side who lets his fists do the talking.
“Don’t kill your partner on your first day,” they’re warned by their superiors.
Their mission is to infiltrate and dismantle a cartel of baddies who plan on selling nuclear weapons and technology to the highest bidder. The key to cracking the case is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the estranged daughter of Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist. The trio set off on an assignment that will take them to exotic locations, confront glamorous villains and see the establishment of the fashionable crime fighting organization United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
The “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” reboot is ripe with double-entendres, spy lingo, Solo’s off the cuff attitude—“Damn, I left my jacket in there,” he says when a room bursts into flames killing its occupant—and cool 1960s clothes. Ritchie and cast get all that stuff right. Cavill and Vikander look as though they have stepped out of a time machine from the Cold War especially to take on these roles, but what is missing, by and large, is the wild action we expect from our spy movies.
“U.N.C.L.E.” opens with a chase scene, complete with stunts and gunfire but it doesn’t have the spark we associate with Ritchie’s work. His frenetic whiplash editing is missing in favour of a much more subdued feel. Even Kuryakin mostly beats up people off screen. Perhaps it’s a new kind of anti-action cinema that tries to put the focus on the characters instead of the fireworks.
There is an inspired sequence that puts the action in the background while Solo enjoys wine and a sandwich and watches the carnage from the safety of a stolen truck. It’s stylish, funny and hints at the tone Ritchie was trying to achieve in the rest of the movie.
On the upside, it captures 60s cool with perfectly curated clothes and set decoration. Cavill glides through this, more Roger Moore than Sean Connery, nailing the arch delivery of a 60s super spy. Hammer lays it on thick with the Russian accent but pulls off the less showy role. If Ritchie was to have Frankensteined an actress for the role of Gaby in the mould of 1960s starlets, he could not have topped Vikander as a picture perfect representation of mid-century cool. She looks like she was born to wear the oversized sunglasses and Mary Quaint frocks but she isn’t simply the romantic interest. (SPOILER ALERT) With an ending that sets up a sequel don’t be surprised if there is a “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” in theatres soon.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a treat for the eyes—it looks fantastic—but will not keep you on the edge of your seat. To paraphrase head of U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant), “for a special agent [movie] you aren’t having a very special day are you?”