Guy Ritchie is pretty much the go-to filmmaker for fun action buddy flicks.
After putting his unique touch on two Sherlock Holmes films, Ritchie delivers again with the charming and cool The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
It’s not going to revolutionize the genre, sit atop many Top 10 films this year and is admittedly more style than substance, but there’s something fitting about a stylish spy movie that doesn’t spend so much time taking itself too seriously.
Like the TV show that inspired it, the film is set in the 1960s at the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Deciding not to do a modern update was smart for a couple of reasons.
Ritchie gets to explore the suave and debonair 60s Mod style, which cinematographer John Mathieson eats up with warm lighting and vibrant colors that pop on screen. The 60s setting helps differentiate U.N.C.L.E. from the slew of 2015 spy films already released this year including Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
Additionally, there’s no fancy gadgets or shameless promotional efforts disguised as hi-tech resources. There’s no face masks, voice distorters, computer hacking devices or anything more sophisticated than a tracking device/bug.
To even the odds, Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes) bank on a more retro feel with an emphasis on characters that reinforce the notion that spies are the coolest cats on the planet.
While the plot can occasionally get dicey and overly complicated, Ritchie is at his best with character interplay.
Not surprisingly, at its best, the film succeeds when the focus is about the characters.
Following an encounter at the Berlin Wall, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to team up in a joint agency assignment.
Cavill perfectly captures the controlled deadpan deliver of Robert Vaughn, who played Solo on the show. The smug spy is a new look for Cavill, who displays a greater onscreen presence thus far than when he’s wearing Superman’s cape. And that’s not even accounting for his impeccable suits.
While Cavill certainly wasn’t some undiscovered talent making his big screen debut, he’s the film’s biggest revelation proving he’s more than capable of headlining films without a big S on his chest.
Hammer proves he’s still got a bright future even after the disastrous The Lone Ranger and even manages to convincingly pull off the Russian accent. With a lot of Starsky & Hutch and a dash of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cavill and Hammer nail down their original frenemies dynamic well and it’s the main element of the film’s success.
U.N.C.L.E. isn’t an exclusive boy’s club however.
Alicia Vikander (who dazzled audiences earlier this year in Ex Machina) stars as Gaby, the daughter of a scientist making a nuclear warhead for bored socialites Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) and Alexander (Luca Calvani, When in Rome).
Vikander plays off well with both Cavill and Hammer and isn’t just included to establish a romantic interest for the two male leads. At a lithe 6’3” Debicki commands attention and makes a striking femme fatale. Hopefully the James Bond casting agents have her on their radar.
The costume design by Joanna Johnston (Jack the Giant Slayer) is stunning and truly helps set the 60s mood. It certainly doesn’t hurt having such glamorous subjects to outfit either.
Ritchie experiments with the action sequences with a comic book style panel sequence that strangely works, but he lets it go on too long and loses the initial wow factor.
Even for the less discerning viewer, the script occasionally gets confusing and needlessly complicated. As usual for a Ritchie production, the film’s pacing could be tighter.
There’d be a more strongly conveyed sense of pending doom with 20 minutes shaved off. The final act needed more of the lighthearted spirit so prevalent throughout the rest of the film as it’s almost too serious for the previously established tone.
Cavill, Hammer and Vikander distract from the plot’s flaws though and as Hugh Grant’s Waverly details their next assignment, I was all set to sign up for the next installment of these stylish super spies.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo credit: Daniel Smith/Warner Bros. Entertainment