Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E
PLOT: At the height of the Cold War, American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to team up in order to stop a nuclear plot hatched by a fanatical terrorist organization.
REVIEW: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E is a title that probably won't mean much to today's audience but for superspy aficionados, the show was one of numerous 007-clones from the mid-sixties, this one being a hip TV show that was very popular for a few years. What gave it a certain amount of legitimacy is that early-on (before his death) Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond – had some input and even came up with the name Napoleon Solo. It started off as a serious spy yarn but quickly turned into a campy series that did for spies what the Adam West Batman did for superheroes.
One of the only surprising things about there being a MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E movie is that it took this long to make as it's always seemed like a potentially huge franchise. Surprisingly, Guy Ritchie's take on the material is much more grounded than you'd think given his SHERLOCK HOLMES movies, with him opting for a jazzy, OCEAN'S 11-style caper rather than an all-out action extravaganza like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
This approach actually feels somewhat refreshing after a summer full of massive tentpole actioners, and by making a streamlined spy flick that seems as keen on making the audience laugh as getting their pulse-pounding with action scenes, Ritchie's made something that actually stands out from the pack a bit. The film is relatively faithful to the first season of MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E with them using the show's basic premise, that introduced a civilian (the week's guest star) into the action and thus made them a surrogate for the audience. They do the same thing here with Alicia Vikander's auto mechanic from East Germany, who just so happens to have an ex-Nazi nuclear scientist father who's may or may not be a terrorist.
For the majority of the film, it's the charming Vikander – having a great summer with this and EX-MACHINA – who's the protagonist, a move that's very much on the same page as the show. The most radical departure is in the characterization of Solo and Kuryakin. While Henry Cavill's Solo is still a silver-tongued ladies' man, right at the start it's revealed that he's a former thief pressed into service for the government (a premise that seems borrowed from another sixties spy show – It Takes a Thief with Robert Wagner). Cavill's Solo is less an action hero and more of a wiley con-man. He's more Cary Grant than Robert Vaughn's James Bond-clone but this approach suits Cavill perfectly and he's got the wit to pull the part off beautifully.
By contrast to David McCallum's sullen heartthrob version of Ilya Kuryakin on the show, Armie Hammer plays the Russian spy as more thuggish, being a kind of Wile E. Coyote to Cavill's Road Runner early on. Hammer's a big guy and it's interesting how much they let him dominate Cavill physically in the action scenes, but this adds to their chemistry. There's a really brilliant boat chase midway throughout the film that perfectly contrasts their brains vs brawn approach and if the film suffers it's that they're separated for too long to allow the relationship to really click.
Easily the film's biggest weakness is the lack of a strong villain. The main Italian baddie is completely forgettable, while Elizabeth Debicki's part is too one-note and passive to really exhibit any menace – although she looks stunning and has one or two really memorable scenes. Another problem is that once the film does make a detour into action territory, the action scenes aren't especially memorable, lacking any really good punch-ups or set pieces. Still, that's not as big of an issue as one might think as the fact that the action is low-key actually suits the caper-movie vibe, although one really solid action beat at the end would have given the film a little much punch. One of the movie's biggest assets is the terrific score by Daniel Pemberton, which is like Quincy Jones mixed with Ennio Morricone. They also deserve credit for not trying to give this a Bond-style score, with the John Barry influence being kept to a minimum (the film also probably isn't exciting enough to really warrant Barry-style strings). The only disappointing thing about the musical score is that Jerry Goldsmith's memorable theme from the old show is only vaguely given a nod, which seems a shame as it's so easily identifiable.
In the end, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E wasn't really the spy action-movie I went-in expecting but in this case I'd say that's a good thing. KINGSMAN and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION already delivered on that front and with S.P.E.C.T.R.E just around the corner Ritchie and company made a smart move giving this a different vibe. Setting it in the sixties is also an interesting choice, although one wonders what an updated MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E would be like. It's quite a fun film and if moviegoers enjoy it as much as the preview audience I saw this with did it could be a solid sleeper. If there's another U.N.C.L.E movie, I'd certainly be on-board.
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