The swinging 60’s aesthetic of the spy thriller seems to be making a bit of a comeback. After years of the aggressively modern Bourne movies (and similarly harder-lined Daniel Craig James Bond films) ruling the roost of spy films in the mainstream consciousness, films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy and the upcoming Spectre (taking a more classic look at Bond from early indications) are embracing the sort of breezy cool of impeccably dressed, perfectly flawless secret agents doing impossibly intricate things without breaking a sweat or leaving a hair out of place in time for afternoon tea. These films injected this style into the modern day, but the newest entrant to the trend, Guy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 60’s TV spy romp The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is much more deliberate in its old school tendencies.
Ritchie’s take on the story concerns the absurdly named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, British, playing American) being forced to forge an uneasy alliance with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, American, playing Russian) at the height of the Cold War. The CIA and the KGB (figureheaded by Jared Harris and Misha Kusnetsov, respectively) have found themselves in this untenable position thanks to a rogue organization, headed by the alluring Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) who has found a way to enrich plutonium more efficiently, allowing the creation of a nuclear weapon with a much smaller and harder to track footprint. Their way in is through Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an unassuming German mechanic whose father appears to be the one constructing the device, possibly against his will. What follows is a madcap race against time, and the two agents must put aside their personal and professional jealousies and paranoia to work toward a greater good.
It is all standard spy stuff, which is in many ways very much the point. The television show always had a hint of a campy vibe to it, not entirely a send-up of the Connery Bond era, but not entirely a straight look at it either. Ritchie, who made his name through hyper-stylized British gangster movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch that skirt the parody line, seems a decent choice for the project, allowing the ability to use his undeniable sense of style for something a little more lighthearted (not that Sherlock Holmes was particularly depressing). And he certainly gets a visual workout here. Lush, European vistas, bunker compounds on islands in the middle of a glimmering sea, a bustling grand prix race and the opulent party that surrounds it, all of it is present here in glorious color that pops off the screen. Equally lush is the film’s score from Daniel Pemberton, a fun, zippy and cheerful throwback to those early Bond films. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a film that reflects the poise of its characters; there is truly never a hair out of place.
Cavill (who is built like a brick wall thanks to his Superman workout regimen) and Hammer (no slouch in the giant department himself) have an easy chemistry, the sort of professional rivalry that exists at the crossroads of confidence, hubris and an unquenchable desire for superiority. Of course, trust is not high on either of their priority lists (as an enjoyable early gag about listening devices attests), with the sexual tension provided by Debicki and Vikander providing a spark. Both ladies acclimate themselves well to the proceedings; Vikander is slowly building a confident resume, and her work here is assured. While Debicki does not have as many credits to her name, she continues to be a singular presence after her mainstream debut in The Great Gatsby. She has an almost alien grace, aided by her lanky, 6’3” frame (she towers over everyone else in the cast, in part because she never shares a significant scene with the 6’5” Hammer). The work of these two ladies is easily on the level of their male counterparts, and certainly one of the film’s highlights.
Where The Man from U.N.C.L.E. runs into a bit of trouble, though, is its thorny, twisty final act. It is a spy story, after all, so the double crosses are inevitable, but Ritchie’s script (with Lionel Wigram also credited) has difficulty keeping multiple storylines in the air as everything begins to collide. There is a long, lengthy action set piece that dominates much of the third act, with its resolution clearly hinting at a tidy ending that would beget the rolling of credits. But the film soldiers on through a few more twists and false endings (and dizzyingly unnecessary split screen effects), and it is at this point it begins to tire, a textbook case of wearing out its welcome. This is a film that is never particularly bad, operating on at best a truly invigorating sense of fun and at worst a passable whimsy. But it is also a film that is never particularly good either, and once it lurches to its ending after one too many obfuscations, one is left yearning for a little more. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an adequate way to spend a few hours beating the summer heat, but it falls short of staying in the memory for very long after the credits roll and the lights come up.