Though viewers will find familiar story beats and characters in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie succeeds in creating a fun love-letter to 1960s spy fandom.
During the Cold War, American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is tasked with tracking a former Nazi scientist (Christian Berkel), whose sudden disappearance has left U.S. leaders wary of nuclear attack from a mysterious, militarized, organization. Solo’s mission leads him to Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the estranged daughter of his missing German researcher, who is trapped behind the Berlin Wall (under communist surveillance). Determined to extricate her from East Germany, so that he can use Teller’s familial contacts to track her father, Solo initiates a rescue mission.
The otherwise straightforward extraction encounters a major hiccup when Solo and Teller are found by KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). A dedicated soviet nationalist, Kuryakin is resolute in his mission to protect Russia from nuclear attack – recognizing, like Solo, that Teller is instrumental in gaining an upper hand in the Cold War. However, less than 24 hours after the two spies come face-to-face for the first time, their respective nations form a tenuous truce, ordering Solo and Kuryakin to join forces and stop an even greater threat: Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
Based on the spy-fi NBC TV series (which aired from 1964 to 1968), Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a dapper spy story that leans heavily on the charm of its three stars – rather than an outright re-invention of the espionage movie genre. In many ways, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a throwback to the spy novels and black-and-white films that inspired the original NBC series; casual viewers will find the slick action set pieces and likable performances worthy of a theater trip, whereas spy movie diehards will notice an extra layer of stylized allusions to the genre’s history on film (even if the story itself isn’t quite as ambitious).
The script from Ritchie and co-screen story developer Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes) borrows heavily from prior espionage films – playing-up a handful of twists that most filmgoers will likely anticipate ahead of their inevitable reveals. There are few memorable shocks or revelations to champion; yet, while the story is one of the less-successful aspects of Ritchie’s film, the filmmaker still makes his mark with how his characters (and their respective performers) react to that story. Ultimately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is packed full of superfluous historical connections that do more to set the stage for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie franchise than serve the current tale at hand – but even when the narrative is convoluted (or overly generic), most scenes are immensely entertaining in the moment.
In addition to Ritchie’s colorful and hyper-real vision of 1960s espionage, the cast is instrumental in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s allure (and overall achievement). Henry Cavill, in particular, is a standout as Solo, setting aside his high-profile turn as the Man of Steel to portray an arrogant – though still earnest – spy, with biting comedic timing and wit. Cavill’s previous performances (in Immortals and The Tudors, among others) were solid, but Ritchie’s film, for many viewers, will live-or-die by the movie’s depiction of Solo (as well as Kuryakin). To that end, Cavill appears at-home in Ritchie’s stylized riff on 1960s spy drama, balancing a suave American “cowboy” spy persona with genuine moments of sly humor and arrogance-gone-wrong.
Similarly, Armie Hammer is entertaining as the rage-filled soviet “giant” Kuryakin. While some moviegoers have dismissed Hammer as an action hero, (following his controversial turn as the Lone Ranger for Disney), it’s easy to forget the actor’s versatility (see: J. Edgar and The Social Network). Juxtaposed against Cavill’s clean-cut and tailored American, Hammer’s rough-around-the-edges but lovable KGB enforcer makes for a dynamic pairing. Hammer’s character (and accent) aren’t quite as nuanced, but in keeping with show’s multi-national United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, the Russian character isn’t relegated to a supporting part in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as Kuryakin is just as important to the film (and the mission) as Solo.
Rounding out the central trio is Alicia Vikander as Teller. Vikander has slowly been accumulating an impressive filmography, including parts in The Fifth Estate, Anna Karenina and her starring role as Ava in Ex-Machina. The role of Teller affords the actress another opportunity to steal the spotlight, and while Cavill and Hammer are stepping into iconic TV characters adapted for the modern big screen, Gaby Teller is Ritchie’s creation (albeit one that pulls from Barbara Moore’s U.N.C.L.E. spy-lady Lisa Rogers). As a result, Vikander and Ritchie introduce a capable female lead that goes toe-to-toe with the men – both intellectually and physically – and does not exist solely as a story beat or damsel to rescue.
The rest of the cast is slightly less distinct, but in keeping with Ritchie’s efforts to reinvigorate 1960s spy drama for contemporary audiences, they check all of the necessary boxes. Despite recognizable actors like Jared Harris and Hugh Grant in the mix, most support characters exist as little more than aids and/or antagonists to Solo, Kuryakin, and Teller. As the central villain of the film, Elizabeth Debicki’s criminal mastermind, Victoria Vinciguerra, gets some development, but never evolves into anything more than a malicious evildoer to propel the story forward – complete with a one-note henchman/husband, Alexander (Luca Calvani).
In addition to standard format release, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is also playing in IMAX theaters; though, the added ticket price is only going to be a requirement for moviegoers who are already sold on Ritchie’s latest film, as well as viewers who default to premium presentations when hitting the theater. It’s a sharp-looking film, with polished action and beautiful cinematography from John Mathieson (Gladiator and X-Men: First Class), but the IMAX release doesn’t take notable advantage of the increased screen space and audio fidelity. Seeing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on IMAX makes for a more immersive viewing but falls short of being a must-purchase upgrade.
Ritchie doesn’t reinvent the spy movie genre in his Man from U.N.C.L.E. adaptation, instead, relying on tried-and-true espionage film staples to craft a strong franchise foundation. That said, even though viewers will find familiar story beats and characters in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie succeeds in creating a fun love-letter to 1960s spy fandom that preserves quality elements of the genre and plugs them into a captivating action film for theatergoers in 2015. At the very least, Ritchie provides a fertile and fun stage on which Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander can shine – as well as a TV to movie product that shouldn’t be too offensive to faithful viewers of NBC’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. series (which, compared to other adaptations of beloved properties, is no small feat).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. runs 116 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.