It’s been a pretty good couple of years for spy movies. With James Bond back onscreen and adaptations of everything from John le Carré’s novels to Mission: Impossible, there’s a flavor of espionage for everyone. This week’s flavor, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is stylish, campy, and showcases some of Guy Ritchie’s best directorial work.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes its general premise from the television series, with suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) teaming up with gruff K.G.B. assassin Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to infiltrate a secret organization led by an heiress with nefarious allegiances (Elizabeth Debicki). They use the niece of one of the Nazi scientists, Gabby (Alicia Vikander), as bait until everything goes sideways.
The film fairly successfully plays up both the campy and odd couple elements of the series. Cavill’s Solo is a likable jerk who bounces off Hammer’s stony, unstable Kuryakin beautifully, whether they’re trying to strangle each other or trading barbs about fashion or spy gear. Vikander gives a surprisingly vulnerable performance, and her scenes with Hammer are sexy and fun without descending into parodic examples of sexist gender relations.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is also a visual treat, with plenty of glamorous sixties fashion and Roman architecture. While it’s not quite as explosive or jet-setting as the average Bond film, it’s very much in keeping with the sort of one-and-done cases that made the show a hit, and there are enough set pieces to amuse even the most disengaged viewer. It’s not a statement movie; it’s probably even less serious than the recent Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and it’s far from the dark, baroque environs of Skyfall. It’s a movie that engages its viewer equally in the storyline they’re watching and the popcorn they’re eating in the theater, and that’s okay.
The star of the show, though, has to be the preferred aesthetic of Guy Ritchie. As someone who made a name for himself with idiosyncratic crime films, it’s interesting to see which elements he kept and which he dropped when moving into the world of Hollywood blockbusters and adaptations. Indeed, there isn’t a smash cut montage or second wave ska song to be found. But Ritchie’s kinetic, occasionally brutish action sensibilities are in full force here. A climactic chase scene and knife fight is shaky and grimy, while an earlier heist by the agents presents as predictably cool. The sharp sound editing replaces ambient noise with metallic throbbing any time Kuryakin is close to snapping. Ritchie experiments with split-screen montages for action sequences, handled here with enough restraint and thrown up in homage to Warhol’s early pop art.
Indeed, restraint is actually a major virtue of the movie, with a couple of fights glossed over or simply alluded to. While I initially felt the climax (no spoilers, don’t worry) was a little underwhelming, on reflection I’m actually a fan of keeping the stakes of the story somewhat grounded. The past few cycles of summer blockbusters have worn me out on big explosions and crushed cities, and keeping things relatively contained (and thus, keeping the collateral damage small) is a bold move. Less can be more, and the lack of protracted gun battles and waves and waves of henchmen getting killed was a plus.
If I had any complaint, it would be that the film doesn’t trust you quite enough and holds your hand a little too frequently. There are a couple of good twists and shakeups of the status quo towards the end, but they’re all explained away almost immediately and in an unnecessary amount of detail. I get the impulse to keep things simple rather than complicated (there’s plenty of labyrinthine double-crosses in harder spy fiction already), but the immediate cheat sheet explanations kill some of the momentum.
Honestly, though, that’s just splitting hairs. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun update to a classic series and a light but satisfying end to the summer movie season. While I don’t know if it’ll be quite as prolific as the classic series (seriously, they had TV movies once a year for nearly a decade), it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is in theaters now.