As a child of the sixties raised on TV there were three shows that meant everything. One was The Avengers (the John Steed/Emma Peel one, not the superheroes), another was Dr. Who, and while Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In gets an honorable mention, the third was easily The Man from U.N.C.L.E. There wasn’t a child in the schoolyard who couldn’t quote the words behind the acronym.
Fortunately for new generations of moviegoers, knowledge of the 1964 to ’68 series is not required. The film has the title, plus it has the names of the two Cold War era spies and their boss, but that’s it. Any other similarities are coincidental. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the movie bares little to almost no relation in either the look or the tone of the series. As for the actual U.N.C.L.E. organization and that NYC tailor shop secret entrance to spy central headquarters, you won’t see that either. Presumably at this early stage, it doesn’t exist. In fact, the film never touches American soil.
Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie has approached the project as a prequel, an introduction to how the cavalier American spy, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the humorless Soviet spy, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) became reluctant partners. The plot is simple enough but with all the various spy shenanigans, the chases and the double-crossing – everyone is lying to everyone – it all comes across as a little too involved to the point where you might lose track of where characters are, what they’re doing and why. But it doesn’t matter. The best thing to do is just go with the flow; at some point things kind of fall into place.
The plot revolves around two opposites – Solo and Kuryakin – teaming up to locate a German rocket scientist. There’s an international criminal organization that intends to usurp the balance of worldwide nuclear power, lead by the fabulously wealthy, ruthless and oh-so stylish villainess Victoria (Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki), and she needs to be stopped before something blows up. The key to locating the scientist is his daughter, Gaby (Sweden’s Alicia Vikander) who becomes the third wheel in the race across Europe, helping, hindering and double-crossing Solo and Kuryakin along the way.
The film has two saving graces; its look and its humor. This is Europe of the early to mid-sixties. With those small, European cars, the fashionable Mary Quant miniskirts, the piled hairdos, the men’s suits and some stylish hats, we’re in Mad Men territory and they’re doing the continental. From the dark, back alleys of East Berlin to the brighter, more colorful locales of Italy, the film’s overall set design is eye-catching and it feels just right. Plus, the humor is intact.
When American Napoleon Solo first talks of his Soviet counterpart, Kuryakin, he talks of the man as being something other than human. “You should have seen it run,” he states after a lengthy and well choreographed gun and car chase through the colorless streets of East Berlin. There’s also a black streak running through the comedy that can often be genuinely funny. When Solo and Kuryakin calmly and dryly discuss what they’re going to do with a certain important prisoner, we can see over their shoulders through a window something they can’t – due to some faulty wiring, the prisoner has electrocuted himself and will be going nowhere.
There’s even a never before seen playful side to Alicia Vikander as she prances to a sixties radio tune in her hotel room, teasingly inviting the stern, plank of wood Kuryakin to join her. After the seriousness of her work in A Royal Affair, Testament of Youth and as the curious artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, it’s fun to see her fool around like this. There’s also the curious casting of Hugh Grant in the Leo G. Carroll role of U.N.C.L.E. boss, Alexander Waverly, but with just a few minutes of screen time it’s difficult for him to establish anything. No doubt in future productions, as suggested in the closing moment, there’ll be more of Mr. Waverly to come.
Solo and Kuryakin are not their TV counterparts; they’re different characters with the same names. Despite their male model good looks and their tall and imposing broad-shouldered presence – they could be giant twins, indistinguishable from one another if it wasn’t for the accents – they’re both curiously missing in action. They make little impression, certainly not in the way that either Robert Vaughn or David McCallum did on TV, though to be fair, both Vaughn and McCallum had several more hours of air time to ground their characters.
Many of those signature, directorial visual flourishes of Guy Ritchie are absent. The flashy edits and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it zip-zap style of the Sherlock Holmes updates, established earlier with his box of cinematic tricks used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, appear to have settled down. The film still moves – that chase in East Berlin is a great opener – but it never feels overly fussy in the way Ritchie’s previous works have done, and it’s welcomed.
The way the film freezes the final frame and the titles that follow, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. intends to be a big screen franchise. Now that it has set the scene, future productions will hopefully reflect more of things that made the TV series popular. Placing some of the action in the States and seeing U.N.C.L.E. headquarters with Del Floria’s Tailor Shop fronted as the secret entrance would help.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 116 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)