Can this remake of the famed 60s American series live up to its promise?
Cold war spy films can feel a little passé. Over and over, we’ve watched cackling Soviet villains grasp for nuclear weapons, only to be opposed by operatives from western countries – usually honourable, easy with women, and with a troubled past. As a remake of a popular 60s show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed to announce a rehash of these tropes.
Thankfully, Guy Ritchie does nothing of the like. The film is slick, humorous, and original, making recent James Bond films look old school. The director has done away with the pompous hero, the plentiful sexism, and the silly gadgets. The result is a breath of fresh air.
CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are asked to join forces when an Italian mafia family, headed by Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) kidnaps a rocket scientist. Victoria plans to force him to develop nuclear weapons, to then sell on to surviving Nazis. In the mix is the scientist’s daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander), who joins in the mission to infiltrate the clan. Hugh Grant stands in as Waverly, a genial yet ruthless British spy, in a role that grants him a judicious escape from his usual rom-com fare.
Neither Solo nor Kuryakin are particularly morally upstanding, but they excel at their jobs. Their easy rivalry, which morphs into a sort of mutual admiration, is brilliantly funny. Hammer’s act is a stereotype of what you would expect from a Russian secret agent, but what makes his delivery enjoyable is that Kuryakin is also, and unusually more tender-hearted and honest than his American counterpart.
Cavill, on the other hand, pitches Solo as a suave charmer with impenetrable motivations. A thief obliged to work for the CIA in order to avoid prison, he has an inexplicable eagerness to be the best at his job. This makes him unpredictable. Nothing seems to jar him: realising he has been drugged by an enemy, he arranges himself comfortably on a couch to pass out. Yet he too shows occasional touches of sentimentality.
The real stars of the film, however, are Vikander and Debicki. Vikander’s Gaby balances the playful and threatening. She handles car chases with ease, manoeuvres the operation as well as her colleagues, and is a skilled mechanic – yet at other moments jumps around dancing in hotel rooms. Debicki is gleefully evil, operating with a style which wouldn’t be out of place in a Fellini film.
The film’s action scenes are paired to a superb soundtrack and shaped by creative edits. Battles with lower stakes are either shown in split screen or fast-forwarded through, and subtitles are used for stylistic effect when the dialogue isn’t in English. Ritchie stages his visual gags skilfully – some bring to mind James Gunn’s work in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is funny, well-paced, and feels modern despite its aged origins. It’s supported by excellent acting all round and has a terrific soundtrack. So much so that audiences might welcome the inevitable set up to a sequel, which concludes the film.
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