The fourth Spy movie this year is out, and it’s the second one based on an old TV show from the 60s – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. This is also the latest from director, Guy Ritchie, who also co-wrote it with Lionel Wigram. Taking place in the 1960s, the story follows two agents who are forced to work together in order to stop a criminal organization from creating nuclear warheads. One of them is the CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the other is the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
Out of all the spy films that have been released this, Man from U.N.C.L.E. might be the weakest, but it still continues the trend as an endlessly entertaining addition to the genre. It stands out by being the only one released this year that is essentially a period piece (until Bridge of Spies comes out at least), but is given that specific Guy Ritchie flair. “Style over substance “will probably be a common phrase whenever discussing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. However, while it’s certainly not false, the film itself is an exercise in style and aesthetics. It’s nothing without the style, so it would be unfair to say that the style overshadows other elements when the style itself is the backbone of film. With this film, Guy Ritchie evokes the style of early Bond films and various other spy films of that era. It’s very playful with genre conventions, not so much in the complex, satirical fashion of Kingsman, but simply in a more sly, wink-nod kind of way without ever going into self-parody. It’s less Ritchie bringing the style to the 21st Century so much as Ritchie taking his own personal signature back to that era. Despite the silliness, it is structured and paced like a film of that time, so it does drag at points around the middle. It’s very laid-back and relaxed in-between and sometimes even during action scenes. It does smartly use that time to build character or have some fun banter.
It does rest on the shoulders of the actors to pull off what Ritchie is trying and they all do a great job, and not just due to the amazingly homoerotic chemistry between Cavill and Hammer. Cavill is wonderful as that suave and cheeky gentleman type who relies on charm and wit to go through every situation. He’s the kind of guy you’d hate for constantly having that smug grin on his face if only he weren’t so charming. Hammer is more of the ticking time-bomb. He just needs one good reason before his rage takes over and turns him into someone who must have found that super soldier serum that made Captain America. Amongst the heroes, Alicia Vikander stands out as the most interesting character, as she is the daughter of a missing German scientist who is presumed to be working for the villains. She gets more and more to do as the film goes on and holds her own as a genuinely good character. Elizabeth Debicki is stellar as Victoria, the deliciously evil villainess and she has good chemistry with her partner, Alexander, played by Luca Calvani.
The story is really nothing to write home about. It’s a standard get-the-nukes-from-the-baddies plot. Again, it’s mostly used as a way for Guy Ritchie to stretch his muscles, so to speak. It’s the little moments that he makes that really stand out. He’ll take a scene that is a fairly typical set-up for a spy movie, but then switch things up and takes you in a direction you don’t see coming. The two most memorable ones are during a boat chase and a scene where Napoleon gets captured and placed in a torturing device. Both these scenes start off and you think you know where it’s going, but as things continue, it goes somewhere else and ends on an amusing and creative note. It’s easily Ritchie’s best work since RocknRolla back in 2008. The humor is on point, the editing is on point, and the soundtrack especially is on point. Huge props go to Daniel Pemberton for the impressive score.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t necessarily a great film, but it’s appropriately lighthearted and consistently entertaining enough to be a treat to anyone who enjoys these types of films that revel in 60s cool. It delivers in everything it needs to and leaves you with some of the best comedic/action beats of the year. A sequel would be great, but I doubt this will make much of an impression with audiences to warrant one, since it sticks to embracing retro as opposed to updating it. Regardless, Guy Ritchie and his cast and crew deliver, they hit the notes in just the right way without going too far into irritating camp or tone-deaf self-seriousness. It knows that the strength lies with the likability of the characters and the idiosyncratic style that is guaranteed with every Guy Ritchie film, so it focuses on those two elements to make a fun, groovy ride.