by Ken B.
I liked this movie. I’m almost surprised by how much I liked it, especially considering that I feel if my tastes were slightly different, or the film’s approach were slightly different, it wouldn’t take much for me to outright hate everything. Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is exemplary of the auteur’s penchant for stylish production design, quick cuts, and a general feeling of style-over-substance, a concept that I’m often very conditional in my acceptance of. But it works here, mainly because Ritchie is clearly precise in what he is doing – despite the manic aesthetic, there’s a resolute lack of messy abruptness. This is a shiny and admittedly calculated-looking project. But it’s also incredibly fun.
This is, of course, an adaptation of the NBC spy series which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum and ran from 1964 to 1968. The movie is set in 1963, where suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is tasked with finding and extracting an East Berlin mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose otherwise long-gone father has connections to an organization making breakthroughs in the private ownership of nuclear weapons. Solo has to perform this task while evading the skillful surveillance of volatile KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) – however, much to the surprise of everyone involved, the American and Soviet spies must work together to complete the task of shutting down the organization’s progress, although both Solo and Kuryakin are secretly told by their respective countries to obtain vital research and technology and bring it home, even if it requires killing the other.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. can boast a gorgeous visual front, ranging from fully committed and authentic period costume to fantastic vistas and cinematography, and since the second and third acts take place in Rome and the surrounding area, breathtaking Mediterranean scenery. Ritchie is able to seamlessly incorporate his visual whiz-bang into a breezy story, with the film traversing along at a light and fast-paced 116 minutes. He further incorporates other tricks that have made appearances in his earlier movies, like split screen sequences and nonlinear editing with extended flashbacks. The good thing is that they don’t serve as obstacles to which the plot or performances have to navigate through, but rather as serviceable and well-leveled companions.
Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander have solid chemistry with each other. Scenes in which the three of them work in coordination with each other, even when not in the same location, are a joy to watch, pulling off both meticulous action sequences and deft comical back-and-forth, the latter being a speciality of Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram’s script. While their characters are written in rather one-note ways with rather insubstantial relationships, the material provided is still given a fair amount of life and energy, and is also entertaining to watch, which is sometimes all you can ask for. Cavill’s Napoleon Solo (a character originally named by Ian Fleming as a television response to his other, better known creation), despite speaking with roughly the same tone as that of a middlebrow salesman, is a charismatic and cool personification. Hammer’s Russian accent is thankfully gaffe-free, and then there’s Alicia Vikander – if you don’t know who she is now, I guarantee you will by the end of the year, considering the pure number of projects she has lined up for release in the coming months. Here, her character is arguably the most complex of the three, and while that isn’t saying much, Vikander doesn’t slack off, with a playful but dangerous interpretation.
By using its source as a springboard for its own variety and spin on the story, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. manages to exist independent of the television series, of which I have never seen an episode, and thankfully it doesn’t matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with the show – this exists purely on its own, as an efficient action comedy. Many big-screen reboots of long-expired TV shows have been remarkably sized misfires, with movies like Dark Shadows playing more as fan service than as a legitimate motion picture. Ritchie doesn’t make that mistake, and instead does his best to make a strong spy story instead of appeasing to only a small fan base for nostalgia dollars. He creates characters who are fascinating, places them in specific locations, puts them in high-energy situations, and has them react accordingly. That is the laid-out version of the blockbuster equation, which is done here with a winking twist and results in two hours of refreshing entertainment.