It’s the 1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis is still fresh in memory. Tension between the USA and Russia are at an all-time high. Seems like the perfect time for their top agents to work together, right? Suave former thief and CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) infiltrates East Berlin to get spunky car mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander) out of there to assist him in locating her missing scientist father. On their tail is Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), KGB’s top agent and human tank. However, circumstances force the two enemies to work together as partners in order to thwart a nuclear threat. Based on the 1960’s TV Show of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is director Guy Ritchie’s stab at the spy genre. For better or for worse (mostly better when it counts), Ritchie has made a spy film that is not only set in the 60s, but feels as if it was made then as well.
The entire cast is having a good time. This is probably the best role that Cavill’s been given by Hollywood, there’s a real sense of fun in the winking way he plays Solo. He plays the role as if Solo knows a camera is pointed at him, as if you’re witnessing how Solo thinks spies act based on years of watching too many movies. It’s a the sweet spot between committed and parody as Cavill finally gets to display some charm and charisma that feeds into Solo’s impossibly cool ego. Armie Hammer is much more of a physical presence in this role. He’s like a sasquatch with a shave in how he towers over Cavill, but he’s not without his emotionally charged moments that he communicates through the thick Russian accent. The two bounce well off each other as they go from cautious of each other to comrades.
Vikander deserves better than this role allows her to do, but that’s not to say she doesn’t elevate it. She’s got plenty of charisma to go around and keeps Cavill and Hammer on their toes, just as her character Gaby does with the two. Elizabeth Debicki is an enjoyable villain to watch as Victoria, a sort of villain that knows how diabolical she is and enjoys every second of it. The film would have bettered itself by having her on screen more, as she commands each scene with a haughty charm. Hugh Grant’s smarm is put to good use, and it’s enjoyable to watch Jared Harris bark orders in an American accent.
The score by Daniel Pemberton is a playful one, drawing on the musical aesthetics of spy films past in its use of flute and percussion. It matches the throwback nature of the film in a delightfully engaging way. Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram focus too much attention on trying to make their spy plot as complex and convoluted as possible. Long lost uncle? Nazis…maybe? Terrorist organization? Because why? What? Somehow the pieces of this puzzle just don’t fit when you stop to think about it. In some ways, it harkens back to the Bond films that Ritchie grew up on (I can’t tell you what the plot of most of the Bond films from the 60s are), but in other aspects it just comes across as incoherent and not thought out. Fortunately, Ritchie injects enough mad and silly energy into the whole affair to where you’re okay with not having much of a clue.
It’s taken a while for Ritchie to find a studio vehicle for him to let loose on, but he may have found it here. No disrespect to his Sherlock Holmes films, but he felt restrained there. He was playing by Hollywood’s rules, not them playing by his. Here he’s having pure unadulterated fun, filling the film with visual gags – best one involves Russian and American agents leaving after a meeting in public, and the entire public gets up and leaves with them (they were all agents) – and an almost manic energy. It’s not his most even-handed filmmaking, but it is some of his most fun.
The film never quite reaches the heights of character, intrigue and excitement of its first act though. Consider how exciting the first act is as Solo and Kuryakin are constantly outdoing each other as Solo tries to escape East Berlin. That’s not to say that Ritchie doesn’t pump in enough energy to sustain the runtime though. He and cinematographer John Mathieson inventively shoot the picture in retro fashion but with frenetic modern technology. The snap-zooms recall the stylizations of spy films yesteryear, but the car and motorbike chase climax couldn’t have been done with the kinetic seamlessness in coverage that they are 50 years ago. The film has its structural issues, but Ritchie and the cast put in enough energy to elevate it above those problems to the point that you’re ready to watch the team pull off another mission when the credits roll.