Sadly Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are nowhere to be found in Guy Ritchie's interpretation of the classic '60s TV show "The Man From U.N.C.L.E", but Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and a delightfully cavalier visual aesthetic return the fun and levity to the spy genre.
This opening act is an origin story for American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Both infiltrate East Berlin to capture Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German scientist who has been hired by Italian baroness Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) to build a nuclear weapon. Both governments put aside their Cold War differences and post their top agents together to stop Vinciguerra and collect the nuclear plans. It’s a fairly straight-forward and traditional spy narrative, brimming with a McGuffin, double-crossing and exciting set-pieces.
While the story is rather trite, the entertainment value is primarily extracted from the breezy performances and Ritchie’s sumptuous visual style. Ritchie puts his love of Italy and Italian cinema front and center here, from traipsing through Rome and countryside to the extravagant fashion, bold yellow subtitles, a circus of Fellini-esque quirky characters, the bold and sudden appearance of music and quick-shot zooms from afar. It all adds an eye-wink and charm and to the experience, making this trip feel like a spritely day-trip within the spy genre.
The characters may be as flimsy and stereotypical as they come, but the comradery and comedic balance between Cavill and Hammer is more than fulfilling, primarily derived from the sharp dialogue by Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram. Each play off the secret agent stereotype to great effect: Cavill overdoes the debonair and pompous thief, oozing charm more in the vein of Cary Grant than James Bond while Hammer adds humor by playing up the humorless, brutish Russian spy. Mismatched cops, spies, etc. are usually an easy sell for an audience and Cavill and Hammer are a delightfully awkward pairing.
While Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill bring their own comedic ammunition, it’s Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki who really shine. Debicki especially takes the honors of stealing the show by torching the male-dominated supervillain trope. While Vikander takes on the more action-oriented role and plays tough with Hammer and Cavill, Debicki uses cunning and restrained elegance – like a cross between Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” -- to create an appetizing new villain. Unfortunately, Debicki’s screen time doesn’t come close to matching Vikander’s, which is highly disappointing.
The majority of the film focuses around the strenuous relationships among Napoleon, Illya and Gaby, but the supporting cast, barely squeezing in more than a few minutes of screen time, has a few nice moments. Jared Harris, awkwardly sporting an American accent is Solo’s agency contact while Hugh Grant –the reigning champion of awkward and uncomfortable line deliveries – fills in for Leo G. Carroll as Alexander Waverly, the leader of U.N.C.L.E, and is a welcome addition to the cast.
The chic production design and John Mathieson’s slick cinematography create a feast for the senses. A major highlight is Daniel Pemberton's score, a groovy hodgepodge of '60s musical sensibilities, from a fusion of ‘Mod’ to a modern take on Ennio Morricone's classic style for "cowboy" Napoleon Solo.
Fans of Ritchie's earlier works might not find the usual appeal here. Ritchie replaces his typical caustic and biting dialogue with subtle sexual innuendos and frequent fashion criticisms, drops the kinetic pacing and editing in favor of reveling in the production and costume design. That's not to stay that Ritchie's prints aren't all over U.N.C.L.E because they are. Ritchie handles the U.N.C.L.E. material with utmost taste .This is his subtlest and classiest film yet.
Usually a late August release is a death sentence but Ritchie’s prowess beats the odds. Is this one of the best spy films ever made? Certainly not. But it’s one of the most down-right entertaining in many a year and hopefully it’s just the first of many more U.N.C.L.E films to come.
Warner Bros. Pictures. Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes.