9 out of 10
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Cast:
Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo
Directed by Guy Ritchie
In the ‘60s, while the Cold War is raging, two agents from opposing sides, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the KGB’s Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), are forced to work together to extract a young woman named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin whose father is being held by Nazis who want him to build them a nuclear bomb.
Hopefully, moviegoers haven’t gotten completely burnt out from all the spy movies that have been released this year so far. While it’s hard to imagine anything new or original can be done with the genre, especially with movies like Spy and (former Guy Ritchie collaborator) Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman successfully poking fun at the genre, Guy Ritchie’s take on the popular ’60s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. offers the best of both worlds, since it never takes itself too seriously with its irreverent sense of humor, but it also doesn’t skimp on the action and tension one would expect.
Rather than trying to update the show to modern day, which probably would have been as big a mistake as the most recent attempted reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Ritchie starts things right at the height of the Cold War with the Berlin Wall still intact and Cavill’s Napoleon Solo on a mission to extricate Alicia Vikander’s Gaby Teller, the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who has been captured to build a nuclear weapon for the Nazis. The mission requires Solo to team with the KGB’s top agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) although both of them have been programmed never to trust the other side, and rightfully so, as it’s hard to set aside their programming as agents for opposing sides.
Compared to other spy movies, it’s a fairly uncomplicated plot that offers many of the expected touchtones but always approaches them from a different angle without treating the enemies, whether it’s the Soviets or Nazis, like the cartoon characters we have often seen in these films. In fact, maintaining the simplicity of the times especially the technology available is part of what makes Ritchie’s take on the spy genre so refreshing in a similar way as the way he approached Sherlock Holmes.
Some may be surprised that the film works as well as it does largely due to the unconventional pairing of Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), whose roles as iconic heroes barely compare to their takes on Solo and Kuryakin. Ritchie is clearly going for something more in line with a great buddy comedy like 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon, where the humor comes from the fact that the two men don’t like each other, maybe because they’re so different. Cavill is a semi-clueless but charming ladies’ man, while Hammer is a gruff beast of a man who has little time for Solo’s shenanigans.
Even more impressive is the force that is Alicia Vikander, who is much more than just a third wheel to her male stars, as she holds her own with a verve and charm we rarely get to see in the women in spy movies. (Probably the closest is Eva Green in Casino Royale.) Vikander has great scenes with the two guys, creating a fun dynamic while keeping it from being the normal testosterone fest it may have been otherwise. Ritchie gives the genre another twist by having the main “bad guy” be a woman with The Great Gatsby’s Elizabeth Debicki playing Victoria, the wealthy Italian who is using her money to fund the Nazi, which gives Solo an opportunity to use his charm and wiles to win her over. Sure, the dashing secret agent charming the femme fatale is classic Bond, but there’s something refreshing about the way Ritchie maintains the un-PC aspects of the Sean Connnery era as a nod and a wink without being insulting to the women who will be equally charmed by Cavill. Add to that a number of fun smaller roles like Jared Harris and Hugh Grant and you have a great cast that’s perfectly suited for the tone Ritchie was going for.
Ritchie might be sick of the comparisons with Quentin Tarantino, especially this far into both their careers, but there’s no denying that both filmmakers have perfected their craft to the point of being able to create masterful genre cinema that sets their work apart from everyone and everything around them. That’s certainly the case with Man from U.N.C.L.E., which could have easily been another drab or derivative spy movie like some of the ones we’ve been getting in recent years, but the work he does with his cinematographer and editor to get the most out of the action and the humor, even throwing in a few split screen moments, makes it obvious that his eagerness to pay homage to the classics comes from a place of love and admiration rather than an inability to come up with his own ideas. (Even the classic Bond boat chase is given a fresh spin.)
Possibly the most impressive aspect of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the score by Daniel Pemberton, a composer better known for his television work ironically enough, who finds a way of giving the film the perfect retro-score with some of the most inventive instrumentations possible. It’s easily one of the best film scores not only of the year–and yes, that includes Junkie XL’s excellent Mad Max: Fury Road score–but possibly going all the way back to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake. As enjoyable and entertaining the whole movie is, so many times I found myself being distracted by how much I was enjoying it for the music, which perfectly embellishes what Ritchie and his cast are achieving on screen.
The Bottom Line:
In exploring the spy genre, Guy Ritchie has created another absolutely brilliant period action film with a great on-screen pairing and a story that leaves you in a place where you’ll be dying to see more of these characters.