The spy thriller is a classic genre of American film. While the ‘ole U.S. of A can hardly claim to have created it, the trappings which have become synonymous with spy-fi were born of the country’s 1960s style and Cold War paranoia. James Bond is by far cinema’s most famous spy, but American television during the 1960s boasted a slew of spy shows like The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, The Saint, Get Smart and of course, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
It’s this show that writer/director Guy Ritchie aims to infuse with his signature style in the film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie’s version opens in 1962 East Germany where the C.I.A.’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) compete for custody of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of Adolf Hitler’s best and brightest nuclear scientist. Solo manages to smuggle Gaby from East to West Germany (in what’s an invigorating opening chase sequence) but she ends up proving key in uniting both governments as she’s the only lead either has to her father’s whereabouts – and more importantly, the whereabouts of his research on creating nuclear arms.
Paired as partners in this multi-national endeavor that serves as the origin for the organization U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), Solo and Kuryakin (begrudgingly) go undercover along with Gaby to infiltrate her uncle’s company in Italy. There it’s rumored her father is being forced to construct a nuclear bomb for a criminal organization led by the alluring but dangerous, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s plot is atypical of many a spy thriller, and it never goes much beyond the bare bones needed to get this caper started. That being said, what Ritchie’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. lacks in substance it makes up for in style. It’s obvious from the get-go that the film is as much of a love-letter to 1960s spy films as it a modern spin on the genre, utilizing retro framing and transitions. Where the Bourne series and even the recent string of Bond movies are a more grim, realistic take, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. embraces the breezy, lighthearted side of the spy drama. This film is all about debonair men in striking suits being beguiled by beautiful women against gorgeous backdrops, but it also manages to poke some fun at many of those now dated representations.
The plot may be paper thin, but it allows Ritchie to place Solo and Kuryakin in several scenarios where the audience’s expectations of the outcome are hilariously subverted. These scenes are by far the film’s highlights, where Ritchie’s knack for combining comedy and action are put to good use. In fact, for a spy flick The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn’t necessarily heavy on the action set pieces, choosing to play the action more for laughs than thrills.
Both Cavill and Hammer play well off each other as the pair of polar-opposite spies. Cavill’s Solo is suave, charming, and overly sure of himself, which he plays with straight-faced glee. As Kuryakin, Hammer plays him sincerely serious with a pain-fueled rage lying just below his cold Russian exterior. Again, much of what’s most memorable about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comes from these two and their drastically different approaches. It’s a partnership that would be entertaining to see again, and since surely Warner Bros. is hoping to build this into a franchise, that’s a distinct possibility.
While it’s the boys that are given the most to do and therefor the best scenes in the film, Vikander manages to hold her own as Gaby. She’s never quite relegated to damsel, though rescuing her is a device used at least once, but Gaby is able to turn the tables on the spies a few times and keeps all guessing at where her allegiance truly lies. As for Victoria, Elizabeth Debicki smolders but never has the opportunity to turn her into more than a one-note villain. She’s bold, beautiful and bad, but that’s about it. Lastly, Hugh Grant has a small though significant role which he ably plays that again, if The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proves successful enough, we’ll surely see back for a sequel or two.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a fun romp, but in the end the whole never quite equals the sum of its parts. It’s smartly directed with a great cast of characters, but the overall story falls flat. Still, there are enough memorable beats to make The Man From U.N.C.L.E. entertaining and worth an afternoon at the theater, if even just to bask in Ritchie’s take on the 1960s spy aesthetic and listen to the film’s excellent soundtrack.