If you’ve ever seen a Guy Ritchie film, especially the likes of Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, you won’t be surprised by what you get in his update of the 1960s spy serial The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Fast-paced and energetic, full of handsome heroes and a sultry villainess, and hyper-stylized, this isn’t a particularly deep movie, but it is an entertaining espionage romp that provides a decent amount of amusement.
U.N.C.L.E. isn’t a spoof or a send up, but through and through it’s fully self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, and packed with witty banter and double entendre. While it’s not a movie that needs to be repeatedly examined and dissected—it’s very likely something that most of the audience will never think about much ever again after they leave the theater—but for 116 minutes that fly by, it’s engaging and diverting. It pays homage to the source, but has a modern edge and feel at the same time.
At the height of the Cold War, an American agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), is forced to team up with a Russian spy, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to stop an international criminal organization led by a wealthy heiress, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who got their nefarious mitts on an atom bomb. The only lead is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a kidnapped German scientist who they must protect and use as bait to lure out the terrorists. Simple and straightforward.
Cavill fits the bill as a former art thief turned international man of intrigue, dapper and adaptable to any situation in which he finds himself. He’s a rogue, a rapscallion, and Hammer’s toe-the-party-line, all-business, good-company-man provides a nice foil. They’re the spy version of the Odd Couple. Vikander adds even more variety to a 2015 that already includes playing an artificially intelligent robot in Ex Machina, and is no mere damsel in distress. Gaby is clever, capable, and has her own agenda that keeps you guessing about her true allegiances. On the other side, Debicki’s Vinciguerra, with her dark, burning eyes, is a carnal, vicious, occasionally bored-with-the-mundanity-of-her-evil-scheme villain.
Ritchie’s trademark visual gymnastics are on full display in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., though they’re not omnipresent or overused enough to prove distracting. Split screens and snappy edits drive the movie forward, while shrewd crosscuts abound and reveal caper-esque action from multiple locations and parallel threads. The film is full of sharp suits, meticulous period fashion, and an up-tempo jazzy score propels the narrative, adding a layer of tension even when Solo, Illya, and Gaby do something as routine as stroll down an Italian street. Admittedly, some of the action, especially the hand-to-hand combat scenes, is over-edited and plays jumbled and chaotic, but the bulk, including car and foot chases, among others, is handled with a deft, if slightly hyperactive touch. But that can be said of most films on Ritchie’s CV.
There are storylines that are never fully developed and don’t go anywhere, especially where the villains are concerned. The antagonists have little motivation besides the fact that they’re evil and have some ties to Nazis, and there isn’t much of an agenda except money and to stave off the existential ennui of villainy.
Even with that, there are enough double crosses and shifting loyalties, close shaves and narrow escapes, that it’s easy to skip over these flaws. In the end, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a light, fluffy, bouncy film that won’t satisfy any deep desire for art or thematic richness, but it is a rollicking spy caper, full of attractive people looking fabulous and exotic locations where you wish you were. These are the goals it sets for itself, and, as it achieves them, it’s a success in this regard. Pretty, slick, and satisfactorily entertaining, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours at the movies. It’s a fond update of an old favorite, and now we wait to see how well it performs at the box office and if we’ll get the additional films that are obviously set up at the end. [Grade: B]