Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
This Guy Ritchie film turns out to be a stylishly pleasant surprise. Baby boomers who spent their Monday nights in the 1960s enthralled by the NBC TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may prefer to console themselves with DVDs of the original, however, for this is not the series they remember.
It’s more in the nature of the origin story the series never had. The top-secret organization known as the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement isn’t even mentioned until the closing credits, and agents Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) begin as CIA and KGB adversaries forced to work together in what they hope will be a one-off operation.
The operation involves Gaby (Alicia Vikander), an East Berlin auto mechanic. “East Berlin” because this is the early ’60s, with the Cold War at its hottest—a touch of fidelity to the original and a bold move on the part of Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram (with story assists from Jeff Kleeman and David Campbell Wilson) in these days when the average moviegoer hardly remembers the USSR.
Besides her interest in auto repair, Gaby is the daughter of a German atomic scientist who has fallen into the hands of a sinister international organization that threatens to put his weapons knowledge to use for purposes of its own. (This organization goes unnamed, but devotees of the TV series may detect the hand of T.H.R.U.S.H., and their suspicions may be confirmed if Ritchie and company ever get the chance to make any sequels.)
Hence the unprecedented East/West cooperation in extracting Gaby from her East Berlin garage; both nations have an interest in obtaining Gaby’s father and his research. After an initial episode in which Solo and Kuryakin work at cross purposes, the two are instructed to work together to get Gaby close to her father and his captors—and both are secretly ordered to come out of the operation with the professor’s research, killing the other if necessary.
This is the basic story—with a number of twists and turns that it wouldn’t be sporting to reveal—which Ritchie molds into a retro-’60s spy drama of the sort that audiences of a certain age cut their cinematic teeth on—and that drove John le Carré to write his gritty, squalid espionage thrillers in protest of their glamour and exciting adventure.
Ritchie and Wigram manage this with an uncharacteristic light touch—and, thankfully, with more regard for their source material than they ever showed for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is actually a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of ’60s spy movies, just as the original series was a pastiche of James Bond (Bond creator Ian Fleming even contributed to the series’ development before a heart attack finished him in 1964).
As the movie’s twin heroes, Hammer and Cavill add to the general charm. Hammer is more amusingly stolid and less the boyish heartthrob than the original David McCallum, but Cavill is almost a revelation. He plays Solo with a dash and elaacute;n that might have livened his neurotic, colorless Clark Kent in the wretched Man of Steel.
Perhaps it’s intended as an act of atonement. Sorry, Henry: nailing Napoleon Solo doesn’t buy you a pass for botching Superman, especially when you’re poised to do it again. But keep trying.