I have fond memories of the 1960’s TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, with Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) as secret agents for the United Nations Command for Law Enforcement. They were like the Impossible Mission Force, but with a Cold War twist as befit the era and global tensions that still defined much of 60’s politics and culture.
Could über-hip director Guy Ritchie do the story justice? I was eager – and somewhat anxious – to find out, and quite to my surprise I absolutely loved the film, from its great 60’s fashion and Italian setting to the relentlessly upbeat soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton. It has almost nothing to do with the original TV series, but it’s just cool, man, really cool.
The film opens with a nod to James Bond: Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) slips behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin to find, recruit and extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). Seems she’s the daughter of a rocket scientist and atom bomb expert who is working for a criminal syndicate, creating, you guessed it, a nuclear bomb. Not good.
Chasing them through East Berlin with superhuman strength and persistence is an almost robotic blonde who we later learn is Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) when the two men are forced to team up to track down and stop Teller before he creates The Bomb.
By the time the opening credits roll, you know exactly what to expect from Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: a hip, stylish action film with silly, but amusing dialog, impressive stunts and a verve that rarely survives most studio films. It’s really fun, a mashup that live somewhere between the crude satire of Austin Powers and the overly self-important early Bond films.
The mission (in original TV series parlance, it would have been “The Affair”) has Napoleon, Illya and Gaby heading to Rome to connect with Gabby’s uncle Rudi (Sylverster Groth), who works for the Vinciguerra Shipping, headed by the evil Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It’s been years since we’ve seen such a glamorous mastermind on screen, and while the men’s suits are perpetually natty, it’s really Gaby and Victoria that show off the costume work by Joanna Johnston, fashions that could well put her in the running for an Oscar nomination in this under-appreciated category.
The story continues with twists, turns, double-crosses, endings that lead to more action and surprises, and a generally convoluted script that keeps the film lively and has just enough Cold War tension between Solo and Kuryakin to keep things interesting. Throughout, however, the emphasis is on style, on cool. Really cool, baby.
Are the performances underwhelming? Yes. Is the dialog often inappropriately silly, pulling you out of the story? Yes. But remember, this is style over substance, as was the original TV series and as befitting a retro-60’s spy thriller for the original hipster set.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a bit of a puzzle, actually, because critics have been lukewarm on it (metacritic score 54) while audience members that have seen the film give it an impressive 7.7 on IMDb. Box office results, however, are fairly dismal, which is disappointing to this fan of the movie. Is it set up for a sequel? Absolutely. In fact, “U.N.C.L.E.” is only introduced at the end of the film, but with the current numbers, we might never see the sequel, and that’s too bad.
So to heck with the box office numbers. To heck with the critics. Just go see it because it’s fun and entertaining. And sometimes, that’s good enough.