Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant
I don’t know if anyone was really hanging out for a big budget remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the old swinging ’60s spy thriller TV series that saw Robert Vaughn and David McCallum saving the world from Bond villains on a weekly basis, but we got one anyway. This brisk but inconsequential update from stylish journeyman Guy Ritchie keeps the period setting and ups the innuendo, but bafflingly retains a kind of low-key, TV sense of scale and stakes.
The film sees suave American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a war profiteer turned secret agent, teamed with the stoic Soviet assassin Illya Kurakin (Armie Hammer) in order to track down a missing German scientist who may be providing Nazi holdouts with a nuclear weapon. The two mistrust each other, of course; it’s the height of the Cold War, and they’re separated by ideology, methodology and orders to kill each other if it proves necessary. Also complicating matters is the presence of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of the missing scientist and key to unraveling the plot.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. cruises rather than jets, more interested in style over plot and attitude over action. It’s a triumph of design, evoking an early ’60s aesthetic that is, by turns, Carnaby Street chic and Eastern Bloc brutal, depending on the demands of scene and character.
The key cast is fantastic: Cavill invests Solo with a louche,seen-it-all cool, giving us a hero so unflappable that he prepares a pillow for his head when he learns his drink has been doped. Hammer – a guy who could be an absolute star if studios ever figured out what to do with him – gets the most laughs as Illya, whose Russian stoicism masks a seething cauldron of murderous rage. And Vikander is Vikander: this year’s “it” girl is effortlessly charming in a role whose key requirement is an actor who is effortlessly charming.
It’s all a little lower case, though, feeling more like a TV pilot than a blockbuster. The villains, particularly, are generic as all hell – you’d think that Nazis armed with nukes would seem a formidable threat, but key villain Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) never gives our boys too much trouble. The action too is, for the most part, low key, albeit stylishly executed. Ritchie employs split screen to cool effect in a couple of sequences, and one of the standout action beats largely occurs in the background while the opportunistic Solo sneaks a snack in a truck cab, unperturbed by the mayhem unfolding behind him. They’re neat bits of business, but tend to raise wry smiles more than anything else.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a cool little movie, but the emphasis is on little, and you have to wonder how it’s going to do sandwiched between a new Mission:Impossible flick and a new Bond movie. It’s strengths lie in its style and its characters – if it gets another outing, hopefully it’ll get to do something more with both of them.