The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)    3 Stars

“Saving the world never goes out of style”

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.

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Having successfully grafted modern sensibilities onto the adventures of a Victorian sleuth with his Sherlock Holmes movies, Guy Ritchie anchors his stylish big screen version of 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E firmly in the era of mini-skirts and cold wars.   Many filmmakers would have updated the story to the modern day, and most studios would have insisted upon it in order to draw in as many moviegoers as possible.   But the use of the 1960s period setting is a welcome move that’s kind of reassuring; it tells us that The Man from U.N.C.L.E isn’t simply a convenient title upon which to nail a plot which bears only a passing resemblance to the work it claims as its inspiration.   Ritchie’s aim is to capture not only the spirit of the TV series, but the seductive 60s Euro-Chic epitomised by such icons as Mastroianni, Bardot and Delon.   Not only does he succeed in doing so, he also infuses The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with a playfully upbeat flavour which its TV forefather only occasionally attained.

The war-profiteer turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo is played by Man of Steel Henry Cavill, and it’s a career choice which may well prevent him from being considered for the role of James Bond – which he surely would have been – when Daniel Craig finally decides to hang up his PPK.    Cavill’s Solo is cast from the same mould as Bond, but his own sense of style and (sometimes misplaced) confidence is a gentle, mocking parody of the 007 brand of secret agent.   Bond might be cool, but he’s not cool enough to prepare his own pillow to prevent injury from falling when he realises he’s been drugged.   While Cavill channels the original Solo Robert Vaughn’s suave self-assurance, Armie Hammer transforms Russian agent Kuryakin from Solo’s rather weedy sidekick to a reluctant, competitive partner with anger-management issues, and much of the film’s humour is derived from the antagonistic banter between the two agents.   They’re kept apart by the delectable Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son, Ex-Machina), an East German defector whose kidnapped scientist father (Christian Berkel – Black Book, Inglourious Basterds) is being forced to put the finishing touches to a nuclear warhead he began building under duress during WWII.   His captors are family owners of an Italian business led by the icily ruthless Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki – A Few Best Men) and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth – Inglourious Basterds), a former Nazi who welcomes Solo’s infiltration of the organisation as an opportunity to renew his torture skills.

While a challenging plot might not have been Ritchie’s primary concern, it’s serviceable enough, even if it does amount to little more than a McGuffin hunt.  The Man from U.N.C.L.E’s action sequences are staged as much for laughs as for thrills and are carefully timed to prevent the film from becoming too bogged down in plot.   A night-time car chase between two rickety East German Trabants is immeasurably more exciting than the tame car chase in Spectre, and a semi-comical boat sequence which sees Solo enjoying stolen wine and cheese in the cab of a lorry while Kuryakin is mired in a near-deadly circular speedboat chase is given a touch of class by the inclusion of a perfectly chosen piece of music which adroitly bridges the scene’s transition from semi-comical to dramatic.   Only a sequence in which Solo finds himself strapped into Rudi’s electric chair can be seen as an ill-judged diversion into much darker territory, although even that encounter is eventually laced with black humour.

Some have complained that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a case of style over substance, but that really depends on what you expect from the movie.   They’re certainly right about the style: the 60s have never looked so cool, the clothes so sophisticated; the soundtrack is cool, too – even finding a place for a nod toward Morricone’s Spaghetti Western tracks – and Ritchie makes fantastic use of recognisably 60s tracks without falling back on instantly-recognisable hits from the era.   His use of 60s-specific techniques such as split-screen is also surprisingly non-intrusive, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. somehow feels like a modern movie while evoking a very keen sense of the Sixties.

The plot might not be the greatest out there, and it’s true that the villains are a little weak, but The Man From U.N.C.L.E is clearly intended as a lightweight piece of fun, and there is so much to enjoy that it is easy to forgive any minor weaknesses.

(Reviewed 9th December 2015)

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