With audiences currently receiving a healthy dose of the spy genre now seems as good a time as any for ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ to garner a release. A title that won’t mean much to today’s audience, ‘…U.N.C.L.E.’ was a 007-esque television program that ran from the mid-to-late 1960’s which, coincidentally, was stamped with the approval of Bond creator Ian Fleming; the writer contributing several of the show’s concepts as well as naming the lead character, Napoleon Solo. Given how old the original show is it’s quite surprising it has taken this long for a film adaptation to get off the ground, but now that it’s here in all its throwback glory it certainly seems like it was worth the wait.
Opting for a slickly styled caper in the vein of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, as opposed to the more outlandish ‘Mission: Impossible’ approach, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ manages to make its presence felt due to its lack of blockbuster mentality with director Guy Ritchie downplaying any over-the-top set action set-pieces in favour of larger-than-life characters and the convenient circumstances they get themselves into. The film initially sets up charming American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and thuggish Russian KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) as likely rivals who both have their sights set on Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic working in East Germany whose absent father happens to be an ex-Nazi nuclear scientist who may or may not be a terrorist. For the sake of good entertainment Solo and Kuryakin have to work together to foil a nuclear plot devised by a terrorist organisation, one that the seemingly innocent Gaby may know more about than she leads on.
The storyline is reminiscent of something from the early days of the original show, and with just enough double crossing and misdirection to keep it intriguing without descending into anything overly confusing, Ritchie’s low-key charmer provides the satisfactory beats one needs to stay invested. It would be easy to argue that the film is slightly lacking in the action stakes as there’s no stand-out sequence to provide any real punch amongst the story, and the villain of the piece (an Italian of sorts who enjoys a good electroshock) is rather forgettable but they’re minor quibbles in a film that looks and sounds as good as anything on offer this year; in terms of looking good Elizabeth Debicki arguably out-styles everyone on screen as the aforementioned Italian villain’s wife, her icy stare and enviable wardrobe lighting up the screen whenever she decides to slink our way.
The cast in general all seem to be enjoying themselves immensely with Cavill the Brit nailing his Cary Grant-esque American silver-tongued con-man, Hammer the Yank steadying his Russian accent as the humour-less Ilya, and Vikander the Swede making for a relatively charming German who succeeds at playing both the audience and her leading men as to her true colours. The romance angle between Ilya and Gaby is hinted at but never fully explored, and the film certainly has fun with Hammer’s intimidating physicality, but where it is at its most comfortable is in the love/hate relationship between Ilya and Napoleon; a mid-film chase scene involving a speed boat and the brains vs. brawn temperament they adopt perfectly sums up their individual approach to their current predicament.
If you’re expecting an action/spy film in the vein of ‘Mission: Impossible’, or even something like ‘Kingsman’, you may be disappointed with the more traditional approach ‘…U.N.C.L.E.’ has adopted, or, like myself, you may find it positively refreshing to view a genre film that revels in its retro setting. The potential for future endeavours is evident by the last frame, and if this is how enjoyable Ritchie makes their start I am definitely on board for follow-up missions.
My rating: 3.5/5
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
Classification: M (Violence)
Review by Peter Gray