In an era when we’re getting James Bond films with actual backstories and continuity, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. might feel like a bit of a throwback to action-heavy spy movies that feel low stakes even when the stakes are supposedly quite high. But this is the place where director Guy Ritchie thrives, where the men believe they are in charge but the women hold the reigns because they’re smarter. The setting for U.N.C.L.E. is the early 1960s, a particularly frigid period in the Cold War, but a fantastic time for fashion, music and a global enemy you could really hate, all of which factor into this tale of two super-spies forced by their respective agencies to team up to defeat a common enemy attempting to buy a few nuclear weapons and actually use them.
Based on the popular television series of the same name, starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the new THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. brings in two almost exaggeratedly manly men—MAN OF STEEL’s Henry Cavill as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and THE LONE RANGER’s Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin of the KGB—who initially clash when Solo sneaks into Russian-controlled East Germany to rescue Gaby (Alicia Vikander of EX MACHINA), the daughter of an important German nuclear scientist who may hold the key to finding her father, who may or may not be willingly working for this mystery criminal organization buying nukes.
In an interesting summer trend begun in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and continuing in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (and no, I’m not comparing the three films in any way other than this trend), U.N.C.L.E. excels at what it’s attempting to do because the female lead is actually better—or at least more important—that the men, whether the fellas realize it or not. In the case of Gaby, she’s the only character in the whole movie that doesn’t wear who motivations on her finely tailored sleeve. She’s manipulating these two rivals, sometimes by throwing her favors in one or the other direction, but always for a reason or to gain an advantage.
Compare Vikander’s work to that of relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (THE GREAT GATSBY) as the film’s villainess Victoria, a cross between a trendy party girl and a classic model Bond villain, whose intentions are also completely clear because she has a habit of spouting them out loud. As a result, she’s not nearly as interesting as Gaby, except to see what flashy outfits she changes into from one scene to another.
But above all else, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. strives (and succeeds) in being cool, from its setting to its stunts to its catchy score (courtesy of Daniel Pemberton). The script from Ritchie (SNATCH, the Robert Downey Jr. version of SHERLOCK HOLMES, and the upcoming KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR) and Lionel Wigram, this film wants everyone involved to be having fun. This is spies at play, and no one realizes this more than Cavill, who is pure American cocky and cocksman. Hammer tends to work Illya with the emotional depth and sheer power of a sledgehammer, but his Russian accent is consistent, so we’ll give him points for that. Throw in Jared Harris as Solo’s American handler Sanders and the perfectly cast Hugh Grant as British intelligence’s Alexander Waverly (who will end up running the newly created U.N.C.L.E. team that these two spies are now working for), and you’ve got yourself a delectable treat of a film.
The biggest problem with THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is that the two leads don’t ever really mesh, even by the end when they’re supposed to have set aside their differences and find out how to play off each other’s strengths to work together. Sure, they have cute/insulting nicknames for each other, but that only takes us so far. And leaves us with Vikander to act as the glue that holds these relationships together, which she does admirably, albeit with mixed results. Still, the picturesque setting are photographed stunningly by cinematographer John Mathieson, the story is kept movie and fairly lightweight, and the stunt work is top notch. The bad guys aren’t especially scary, but that might have almost felt out tune with the rest of the film if they had been.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is something of a mixed bag. I wish there had been more cultural friction between the male leads, but in a film already loaded with questionable allegiances, maybe keeping things simpler was the right call. The story is already unnecessarily convoluted for what essentially a tried-and-true “get the nuke away from the baddie” plot, it might seem indulgent to make things more confusing. I actually saw this film a few weeks ago, so I’ve had time to see if it really stuck with me or if it’s a in-the-moment type of entertainment. Turns out, it stuck with me. It’s flawed but thoroughly enjoyable. And I hope they do one more, then get out and move on.