Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons. (From IMDb)
Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E started as an American television show that ran on NBC from 1964 to 1968. It followed the adventures of two spies: American Napoleon Solo and Russian Illya Kuryakin. They teamed up to save the world from imminent danger by working for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE). Borrowing little more than character names and the trademark theme song, Guy Ritchie’s film stands out from other movie adaptations of classic television shows. Instead of parodying the source material, Ritchie introduces Solo and Kuryakin as competent professionals with equal skill sets but radically different approaches to espionage.
Ritchie’s film version is set before the formation of UNCLE. Solo (Cavill) and Kuryakin (Hammer) are forced to cooperate to stop the mass production of atomic weapons by a corrupt Italian family. The plot is rather thin but it is played out quite stylishly. It is 1963 and Adolf Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist has disappeared. Fearing that the scientist’s expertise could be bought by dubious opportunists, the CIA dispatches the dashing Solo to smuggle the scientists’ estranged daughter out of East Berlin. While removing Gaby Teller out of the Berlin, Solo is sidetracked by Kuryakin, who is trying to fulfill similar order from the KGB. An Italian company with ties to the Italian Fascists of World War II are looking to develop a nuclear bomb. In a last ditch effort to stop this from happening, the KGB and the CIA form an uneasy alliance to locate Gaby’s father in order to stop the sale of the atomic bombs. The heart of the movie lies in the strained relationship between Solo and Kuryakin. They bicker over everything from proper protocol to Gaby’s fashion choices.
Opening with a stylized newsreel showcasing the rising tensions between the East and West during the Cold War, the film starts by setting the tone of a world that is one bomb away from a nuclear apocalypse. With bright colors, over-the-top titles, and stylish text the beautiful film reel is bursting with shades of bright red. Not the easiest color to open with, but it grabs the viewers’ attention and never lets up. The actual news footage is stylistically over saturated but not annoying and feels like an authentic 1960s spy caper. Ritchie is best known for British gangster flicks and the steampunk infused Robert Downey Jr helmed Sherlock Holmes films. He has always had a knack for pulling off highly stylized films filled with bright technicolor and some interesting editing techniques, such as split-screen narration. Though The Man From UNCLE is much more suave and restrained than Ritchie’s usual rough and tumble style of filmmaking.
Man of Steel star Henry Cavill plays the American agent Napoleon Solo. Though he comes across as more British than American as he traipses around the screen in his expertly tailored suits. His performance comes across as a slight parody of James Bond and his American accent seems a little forced. However, he does a fantastic job portraying a suave thief turned super spy. Armie Hammer is doing his best to live down the disaster that was The Lone Ranger. Here he portrays the stone faced and business minded Illya. From the square jawline, neatly combed hair, piercing eyes, and nasty face star is the essential KGB counter to the suave Solo. Hammer does a better Russian accent that Cavill does American. However, neither sounds overly authentic. But their accents are not distracting and are at least consistent throughout. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby, the estranged daughter of the brilliant scientist and a competent auto mechanic. While Vikander is a competent actress, she is clearly playing third wheel to the Cavill-Hammer duo. Ritchie does his best to give Vikander something to do on screen. But Gaby is more a plot device than an actual necessary character.
The three main cast members look fantastic, and the costume department did a great job recreating the fashion aesthetic of the 1960s. All the characters look modern but classic in well styled and perfectly tailored outfits. This is the kind of film that makes a thousand dollar suit seem like a good investment. Ritchie and his team clearly enjoyed channeling the 1960s and easily embraced the aesthetics of the cinema from that time. However, some of Ritchie’s camera angle choices struck an odd note. The split screen style, while it can be effective in certain instances, is a tad disconcerting and makes several scenes hard to follow. And the color palette is sometimes too dark to be effective. Cavill unintentionally disappears into the background several times. But it is definitely a cleaner film, aesthetically speaking, than the Sherlock Homes films.
Overall, this is a fun spy caper. It is lighthearted and the narrative does not take itself overly serious. Everyone looked like they were having a good time making the film. While the plot is rather thin, the acting makes up for it and there are enough twists to stay interesting. The Man From UNCLE is similar in tone to Dr No, Our Man Flint, and Casino Royale (1967). A spy movie where the hero faces impossible odds yet always comes out on top without ruining the perfectly tailored suit. It is a delightful film and an enjoyable summer cinematic escapade. If you are waiting for a hyper-realistic and gritty spy adventure, Spectre comes out in November.